New mom who lost job over request to pump at work is raising awareness

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Alabama mother Haley Gentle was working for a small company and went on leave to have her baby in early January 2019.

She was off without pay, and it was understood by all parties that she would be returning to her job after maternity leave – until she asked her employer if she could pump breast milk at work. Her employer said, 'No' and that she no longer had a job with the company, according to WHNT.

When she first inquired about pumping, she wrote her boss:

"I'm breastfeeding my baby and plan on pumping. I have a hands-free device that I will need to use during work maybe twice, once during 8-5, and the other time I can during lunch. Pumping will not require me to be away from my desk, computer, or the phone. It's silent and no one would even know I'm doing so."

Her employer's reply:

"I do have an issue with the pumping. You will be able to do it on your lunch hour but not during work time. What I allow for you I would have to allow for others."

WHNT spoke with an attorney who specializes in employment law and general laws that apply to pregnant women and new mothers in companies with under 50 employees.

"Pregnant women do have rights in the workplace," said Teri Mastando with Mastando & Artrip LLC. "Unfortunately, what rights you have varies based on the number of employees your company has."

Gentle's company was under 50 employees, which means any accommodations the company didn't want to make for her have to be proved as an "undue hardship" on the company.

“I feel like I did everything that a mother should do," she said. "I went and I found out what my rights were.”

Gentle followed up with her employer by sending a certified letter asking for reasonable accommodations – two 20-minute unpaid breaks to express breast milk.

"They can only deny those breaks if they can show there's a hardship involved," Mastando said. "What kind of financial hardship is it on a company to provide those breaks that the person is asking for to express breast milk.”

Still, Gentle was told she was no longer an employee of the company. Now she's sharing her story and urging women to know their rights before starting employment with a small company, so that what happened to her won't happen to anyone else.

"I want mothers to know that there are support groups out there," she said. "And for them to know their rights, too."

"Unfortunately, in my world, 'right' and 'legal obligations' are two different things," Mastando said. "The best advice I would give to someone is to find out in advance and get in writing what their employer's plan is. And know your rights, know how many employees your company has, know which laws apply.”

A few days later, after receiving the certified letter, Gentle's employer said they would be willing to discuss accommodations.

“Suddenly I’m not valuable to them anymore because I asked to pump? I don’t want to work for a company that doesn’t support that," Gentle said. "I don’t want to go back to work for somebody like that.”

Gentle has since been appointed the Alabama ambassador for the Normalize Breastfeeding initiative.

She has a new job lined up where she will have access to a private pumping room any time she needs it.

"This is my story," she said. "I don't think that's something you should be quiet about."

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