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Pregnancy discrimination, which includes discrimination based upon breastfeeding and lactation, is prohibited by the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. It is also arguably sex discrimination, which is prohibited by both federal and Kentucky law.

Breastfeeding discrimination comes in a number of forms, including harassment of breastfeeding workers. Most commonly, however, the issue is failure to provide periodic 15- to 20-minute breaks in a private space for mothers who need to pump milk. Sometimes, women suffer negative, work-related consequences when they ask for the breaks, an appropriate pumping space, or other reasonable accommodations related to breastfeeding.

Without these accommodations, working women face serious health and personal consequences, including leaking milk, painful infections, and a diminished milk supply. Many are forced to wean their children earlier than they’d prefer or their doctors recommend.

How are lactating workers affected by discrimination?

A recent, first-of-its-kind study by the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, looked into the workplace consequences of breastfeeding discrimination.

“We’re experts in the field, and we were shocked by what we found,” admitted one of the study’s co-authors.

Over the past decade, the researchers found that fully two-thirds of cases of alleged breastfeeding discrimination resulted in the worker losing her job, either by being terminated or by feeling forced to quit. Moreover, of those who lost their jobs, three-quarters paid an economic penalty in their next job, such as receiving fewer hours or having to take lactation breaks without pay.

“Women are literally losing their jobs over feeding their babies, and job loss can have harsh economic consequences for years to come in the same way sexual harassment and unequal pay can have harsh economic consequences for women,” said the co-author.

Lactation discrimination appears to be most common in male-dominated industries. Only 16 percent of American women work in such industries, yet 43 percent of breastfeeding discrimination complaints arise there.

The study’s authors are pushing for a new law creating a universal ban on breastfeeding discrimination and a universal requirement for accommodating breastfeeding.

In the meantime, the authors urge companies to consider the cost savings of meeting lactating employees’ needs. The savings come from lower healthcare costs, reduced sick leave, and improved employee retention.

If you have experienced breastfeeding discrimination, an experienced employment law attorney can evaluate