Breast-feeding becomes an issue in workplace and General Assembly Mothers want right to express milk on the job

March 29, 1998|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

A Southwest Baltimore second-time mom wanted to bring a pump last fall to the Jessup prison where she works to pump breast milk during her lunch break, but her employers said no.

So Alenthia Epps, 36, a corrections officer at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, stayed home a month past her maternity leave earning nothing. She had to -- her daughter hadn't gotten used to feeding from a bottle filled with breast milk. After an aide to Gov. Parris N. Glendening intervened, Epps returned to work with the pump in November.

Now, as she awaits the outcome of a grievance she filed against the prison through her union to recover $3,000 in lost pay, she has become part of a move sweeping the country to force employers to allow women to pump breast milk while at their job.

This week, federal legislation was introduced that would protect breast-feeding mothers at their jobs under civil rights law; Maryland delegates last year tried but failed to pass a measure to force employers to allow breast pumping at work if the employers wanted to call themselves "family friendly"; and a House committee in Minnesota last month unanimously passed a measure requiring employers to give nursing mothers a mid-day break and a clean, private area for expressing milk. Companies in Boston and other cities are creating "mother's rooms" in which women can pump milk.

"I think women are more willing to advocate for themselves and their babies," said Dona Oldfield, a board-certified lactation consultant from Columbia. "Women feel they can make a stronger case, and are less inhibited about doing so than they may have been in the past."

Although opponents are concerned about liability and reduced productivity, Epps foresaw no such problems. She'd held the same $35,000-a-year job for 12 years, and pumped breast milk in the prison after she had her first daughter, Christian Barnes-Wilson, eight years ago.

She was ready to return to work in late August after her second daughter, Lee'Ondra was born July 10, and wanted to bring a $200 pump to use during her half-hour lunch break. "The half hour was all that I expected from them," she said. "I didn't want anything extra."

But Michael L. Stinnett, then-acting warden, told her that because she moved around a lot on the job, she couldn't pump milk at the prison, and that if she wasn't back 30 days after Oct. 5, she would no longer have a permanent job. Her health benefits, 80 percent covered by the state, were also cut, according to a representative from her union.

When reached Friday for comment, Stinnett wouldn't discuss Epps. "I can't divulge any of that because it's personnel stuff," he said. "A part of me would like to say something, but I can't."

AFSCME union representative Rena Doyle said Stinnett requested from Epps "a proposal and some doctor documentation as to why you have to breast feed."

Doyle said Stinnett had "put his foot down" on the matter and another time inquired, "Oh, if there's a riot during your break, are you going to leave the riot to go pump?" and suggested that Epps' husband bring the baby to the prison to be nursed. "We're talking about a place where people have committed murders," Doyle said.

Epps said that not pumping or nursing during her eight-hour shift could cause infections; her milk ducts could dry up, and she'd suffer painful swelling.

Experts advocate breast-feeding for six months to one year. Last December, the American Academy of Pediatrics said that breast milk is preferred for all infants, unless formula is medically necessary. Breast milk fights infections and infant diseases, the academy said.

On Oct. 20, Epps called Terence Curtis, who directs the governor's office of constituent services, which specializes in cutting the red tape between Maryland residents and government agencies. Curtis said he called Stinnett and "advised him to take another look" at Epps' concerns.

Within days after the talk with Curtis, Epps also filed a complaint with the Maryland chapter of AFSCME, which would not release a copy of it to The Sun.

By Nov. 4, Epps was back at work -- with her pump.

Her troubles might never have arisen had a bill introduced in the 1997 legislative session been passed. Del. Adrienne A. Mandel, a Democrat from Montgomery County, introduced the bill, supported by 21 other delegates, including three from Howard County and two each from Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.

It would authorize an employer to promote itself as "family-friendly" if it offered new mothers a place to nurse or pump milk that was private, had running water and cold storage.

The bill was defeated, 13-8, in the Economic Matters Committee. "Sometimes it takes a while," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, "for a somewhat new kind of idea to grab hold down here."

Opponents worried that employers, especially small-business owners, would not be able to comply without losing out financially or in productivity.

"Generally, I've always been opposed to mandates to small-business owners," said Del. Van. T. Mitchell, a Democrat who represents Charles County, and one of the 10 men and three women who voted against the measure.

On March 24, Carolyn B. Maloney, a Democratic representative from New York, introduced legislation in Washington that would keep women from being fired or discriminated against for pumping breast milk.

As for Epps, a settlement for the full amount of wages and insurance benefits lost is pending and could be reached by an April 25 scheduled hearing. "It's been stressful, honestly, but I believe in my heart it's been worth it," Epps said. "I just didn't think that it was fair. I want to take care of my baby."

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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