A city teacher returned from maternity leave to find the only space she could pump breast milk was the school bathroom or an empty classroom with anxious students banging on the door, according to a complaint filed with the Comptroller’s office.
Shannon O’Leary, a special education teacher at Intermediate School 51 in Staten Island, had to walk through crowded hallways clutching bottles of breast milk to store in her personal refrigerator, she alleges.
“It’s embarrassing having to walk through the halls with breast milk in your hands,” she said, “if a colleague wants to stop and talk, and with the nature of middle school children.”
O’Leary’s complaint, filed late Wednesday and also submitted to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is the latest to challenge a city agency for flouting state and federal law requiring employers to give new mothers dedicated spaces to pump and store breast milk.
A 2019 lawsuit against the NYPD alleges the department forced an officer to pump in a dirty locker room and even in her car.
Federal law requires employers to provide pumping mothers "a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public.”
But O’Leary said that both times she’s returned from maternity leave — once in 2014 and again in 2018 — her school hasn’t met those requirements.
She often went to a bathroom, she claims and had to carry the milk back to her classroom where she kept a personal refrigerator to store it.
Other times, she used an empty classroom, she said. But she was constantly interrupted by students knocking on the door or colleagues who needed to use the room.
Last year, the classroom wasn’t an option because another teacher used it during her planning periods, she said.
O’Leary said the problem extends far beyond her school.
“What I have in the bathroom is considered luxurious,” compared to the conditions of female teachers at other schools, O’Leary explained. She’s heard of teachers forced to pump in closets in the backs of occupied classrooms, she said.
“All my girlfriends who are teachers, I don’t know of one school that has a lactation room. All the women make do and figure it out,” O’Leary added.
Eric Sanders, O’Leary’s lawyer, who also filed the NYPD complaint, said if the comptroller doesn’t resolve the issue, he plans to file a class action lawsuit in Brooklyn Federal Court.
Education Department Spokeswoman Danielle Filson said “new parents should be supported wherever they go in New York City, and it is our policy to provide employees with break time and space for lactation upon request. We are working to make it easier for employees to request lactation space so that our schools and facilities continue to be parent-friendly places to work. We will review this claim.”
The department is currently reviewing its policy on allocating spaces to pump.