Breast-milk pumping results in job loss?: ACLU takes action on behalf of Heather Burgbacher

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ACLU of Colorado spokeswoman Rosemary Harris Lytle tells the story.

"Heather has worked for Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen, a Jefferson County charger school, for more than five years," she says. "She was a highly rated, highly evaluated teacher."

According to Harris Lytle, Burgbacher had a child during the time she worked at RMAE and initially received no complaints when she expressed breast milk while on the job; she always did so in a private, secure place off-limits to students. But then, Harris Lytle continues, "her supervisor changed -- and the new supervisor was not as accommodating in terms of her breast-pumping schedule," which required her to arrange classroom coverage for twenty minutes three times a week.

Burgbacher "altered her scheduled and did everything to make this work for her supervisor, but he still had difficulty with her," Harris Lytle says. Example: The supervisor allegedly recommended that Burgbacher give the baby formula instead. Then, Harris Lytle goes on, "when it was time for her contract to be renewed in February, she learned she was being non-renewed -- and her supervisor specifically referenced the conflict of pumping breast milk on the job."

If so, that's illegal in the view of attorneys Rebecca Wallace and Mari Newman, who are handling Burgbacher's case for the ACLU. In 2008, Colorado passed the Workplace Accommodations for Nursing Mothers Act, "which says employers are required to provide a private space, reasonable time and reasonable accommodations for the expressing of breast milk by a nursing mother," Harris Lytle explains. "And plain and simple, those things did not happen for her at the Jeffco charter school."

If a suit does take place, it will be the first prompted by the 2008 law. But that's not the only foundation for a potential complaint. The ACLU also believes RMAE violated federal laws against sex and pregnancy discrimination.

Rules pertaining to governmental agencies prevent the immediate filing of lawsuits against them. As such, the ACLU is moving forward with a pair of legal actions: a notice of the intent to file a suit, as well as a complaint submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (Both are on view below.) Jefferson County can respond by "either accepting that they have wronged Heather Burgbacher and try to make it right," says Harris Lytle, "or they can deny wrongdoing completely, and we could move forward with the lawsuit. Or they can take ninety days and do nothing -- and if they do that, we have the right to file the lawsuit after ninety days."

Thus far, Jefferson County offers no indication of surrender. Officials have released a one-line statement that reads: "The teacher's separation from the school had nothing to do with the issue." A Jeffco source told 9News the decision not to renew her contract was related to the classroom being transitioned from a technology class for students to one for adults. Burgbacher, who has a master's degree in the field, considers this argument absurd.

In the meantime, Harris Lytle stresses that "there is nothing more central to life than the ability of a mother to feed her child -- and every doctor says infants thrive on breast milk. It's a basic occurrence, absolutely in concert with nature. And no woman should have to choose between nursing her child and keeping her job."

Page down to see the aforementioned 9News report, as well as the intent to file and the EEOC complaint.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts