Making a space

Meet one of the lawyers behind the courthouse pumping rooms

Meet one of the lawyers behind the courthouse pumping rooms - Rena Naltsas
December 2018
By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

When Amy Meek encountered the case of Judith Miller and her attempt to breastfeed in the Daley Center in 2017, it struck a chord with her.

What resonated with Meek was the fact that she is a mother of twin boys, and had encountered her own issues with breastfeeding in public.

Acting as another spur was the close to four years she has worked on the Women’s and Reproductive Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Miller’s experiences resulted in articles in the Chicago Tribune and stoked a desire Meek has had since she attended Yale Law School to help move the needle on progressive issues.

“Getting to move causes forward and engage in advocacy on behalf of the underrepresented is the kind of work I knew I wanted to do,” she said.

Meek tells us more about Miller’s story and what she and the ACLU are doing to advocate for the rights of pregnancy and breastfeeding.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chicago Lawyer: What’s the story behind Judith Miller?

Meek: She was called for jury duty at the Daley Center. She herself is a lawyer [University of Chicago law professor], so unlike a lot of people, she was actually excited about performing her civic duty and getting to serve on a jury. She ended up having to postpone the date because the first one was scheduled to be kind of late during her pregnancy and they gave her a date that was just a few weeks after giving birth, which she felt she could fit into her schedule because she was on maternity leave. She checks the website for the Daley Center and sees that they have a lactation room.

She reports for jury duty and arranged childcare for her newborn infant. She brought her pump, reports to the clerk and asks if she can have access to lactation room.

The clerk didn’t know how to get access to this lactation room, telling her she can pump in the men’s room because the women’s room doesn’t have working electrical outlets or she could be excused to go home.

The clerk tried to assist her, calls the support number but is unable to get through to anybody else. So, there’s sort of this breakdown in procedures that happens here. She checks in over the course of about two hours.

Clerk continues to check in and is not able to get her access to the lactation room. The only option she was presented with was to pump in the men’s restroom or go home. That’s denying someone who’s a nursing parent equal access to their civic duty of jury service.

CL: How did you get involved?

Meek: After this happened to her, she wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune, which was actually how I learned about her experience. One of the last sentences of her op-ed was something to the effect of “I can’t believe that there’s no law that requires them to [support this].”

That was sort of a call to action for us. I represented her in filing this charge that says that she was denied equal access to public accommodations because of her pregnancy-related condition of breastfeeding. It really set in motion legislative efforts to ensure that requirements in county courthouses identify a lactation space that’s not a bathroom, that’s private and that includes a space for a chair, a table and electrical outlets.

CL: What’s the story behind the legislation?

Meek: The ACLU drafted and took the lead in coalition with a number of other organizations to pass that law, SB 3503. It passed nearly unanimously by the state legislature and was signed into law by the governor in August 2018. It requires that by June 1, 2019, all county courthouses make a lactation room area available for pumping that is equipped with a chair or table and an outlet. We’re also representing [Miller] in a case that we filed with the Illinois Department of Human Rights. The case is currently being investigated by the department.

CL: What kind of feedback have you received on the case?

Meek: We’ve had to do a lot of educating for this legislation. Explaining what a breast pump is and the need for women to have access to a private space to pump every three or four hours. If they don’t have access to somewhere they can express breast milk on a regular basis, they can become engorged, which is really uncomfortable.

It can also have real health risks, so someone could get mastitis or a milk duct infection because they haven’t been able to regularly express breast milk. In advocating for this bill, we had to make sure people understood all of this. If someone is breastfeeding for the first six months, they can be essentially cut off from public life.

We also had to address cost concerns. These courthouses are 100-year-old buildings. People wonder if it will require us to do a whole renovation effort for every single one of these courthouses. The answer is no … it doesn’t really even have to be a room. It can be literally just an area with partitions or curtains.

A lot of courthouses have a private jury room or a private witness room; anywhere that they can make private. A chair, a table and access to electrical outlets is really all that you need. People creatively figuring out solutions is the first step to making sure that somebody is thinking about it and also that employees know about it.

CL: Why does this issue resonate with you?

Meek: My twin boys are 4½ now. I’ve had the experience of being pregnant at work and trying to navigate finding a space to pump. This may be an exaggeration, but I think anybody who’s made the decision to breastfeed and pump has encountered some situation where they’ve been faced with the choice of pumping in the bathroom or going home.

It can be a humiliating experience. When we saw that op-ed, we wondered if it was just a one-off. But the more that we started researching this issue, the more we heard from attorneys all over the state who had gone to different courthouses and tried to find a place to pump. One woman told us about a security guard who told her to go pump in the cafeteria and face the wall.

After we publicized Judith Miller’s case, a woman [named] Kiana Keys came to us and told us she’d had an almost identical experience in the Daley Center. Apparently between 2012 and 2017, they still haven’t fixed the women’s room outlet.

CL: What does the future hold for the ACLU with this work?

Meek: Unfortunately, we continue to see just how common discrimination and denial of accommodations are for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding or for people who have caretaker responsibilities. [In October], The New York Times ran an article about women who miscarried because their employer denied them some sort of reasonable accommodations.

We see that not just in the workplace but in places of public accommodation and other areas of life. So, we’re always interested in hearing from people who had these experiences. It’s something we’re really trying to push back on.