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After her supervisors reportedly told her to “figure it out” on her own, a female employee at a small Smithsonian museum attempted to pump breast milk for her newborn baby in a dressing room within the site’s theater area. Then, after male workers had walked through the room on separate occasions, the woman tried using an empty office, and posted signs outside indicating she was lactating. But colleagues barged into the office twice while she was pumping—according to a letter published today—including the woman’s supervisor.
That’s just one of a few incidents reported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the First Shift Justice Project—a District-based nonprofit devoted to working parents—in a letter of concern they issued Wednesday to the Smithsonian Institution’s secretary, David Skorton. The groups allege that the Smithsonian, the majority of whose 20-plus facilities reside in D.C., doesn’t “provide basic and essential accommodations to nursing mothers,” such as dedicated lactation spaces, scheduling that responds to employees’ nursing needs, and the relevant training for staff. The letter notes that the institution employs over 6,000 people, and calls for it to “implement an agency-wide policy” on mothers who breastfeed.
“To have a coworker of any kind, but in particular a male coworker or a supervisor, walk in [during pumping] can be extremely humiliating,” says Jennifer Wedekind, a lawyer for the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital. “At this point, we’re hoping to bring the issue to the attention of the Smithsonian’s leadership and offer ourselves as a resource to them.”
Other women who appear in the groups’ letter apparently had to use bathrooms and file closets to express their breast milk, none of which contained tables for the women to put their pumping equipment on. The Fair Labor Standards Act specifies that restrooms can’t be designated as lactation spaces because of health and sanitation concerns. Additionally, women who fail to pump on a regular schedule may suffer pain, infection, blockages, or lactating issues further down the road, according to a 2011 U.S. Surgeon General report.
While the full scope of the Smithsonian’s alleged failures to accommodate nursing moms is unclear, the institution’s chief spokesperson, Linda St. Thomas, acknowledged in an email to City Desk that leadership will seriously consider the issue. “We will be making appropriate spaces in every museum, and following up with staff,” she wrote. “The Under Secretary for Finance and Administration [Albert Horvath] will oversee [this effort]. As we make progress in buildings that still need to make accommodations, we will communicate to our employees and, of course, keep ACLU and First Shift informed.”
According to the groups’ letter, only two dedicated lactation rooms exist within the entire Smithsonian: one in the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and a second in the Smithsonian Institution Building—commonly known as the Castle. Laura Brown, the executive director of First Shift, says an employee whose case she handled had connected with “five to ten” other women who had faced obstacles to being able to pump properly. Those obstacles included tension with managers over not being accommodated.
“This is consistent with [what happens elsewhere,]” Brown explains. “Employers don’t want to deal with something as personal as this and employees are hesitant to request full accommodations: It involves parts of your anatomy that aren’t normally discussed in the workplace. What accommodations look like in a specific place requires a conversation.”
Brown, whose organization caters to low-income pregnant women, adds that women in “all kinds of jobs” struggle with nursing in the workplace. Given the Smithsonian’s large size, she says can understand how individual managers may be “ill-positioned” to know what works best for women who have just returned from maternity leave. Generally, she adds, nursing moms back at work after a three-month leave must pump three times a day.
“The woman who came to me, she had tried through proper channels, a million times, to figure out when and where she could pump and got no cooperation at all from anyone in management, except a dismissive tell-me-when-you-figure-it-out response,” Brown says.
“It was extremely stressful for her.”