The Other 60 Percent

Teacher, charter settle breast-pumping case

In the first case of its kind in Colorado, a former Jefferson County teacher has won an undisclosed cash settlement and concessions from the school where she said she lost her job for taking breaks to pump her breast milk.

Former Jeffco teacher Heather Burgbacher and her daughter Dreya, now 2, on Tuesday. Photos courtesy Healthy Policy Solutions.

Under the 2008 Colorado Nursing Mothers Act, breastfeeding mothers in Colorado are entitled to take time in a private location to express milk at work. Colorado is one of 24 states with laws that support breastfeeding mothers in the workplace. The right to pump milk at work is also now guaranteed under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Heather Burgbacher held her daughter, Dreya, who is now 2 and said the dark days she endured while fighting back are now worthwhile. The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and the national ACLU fought the case on Burgbacher’s behalf.

“It was a very difficult road. I felt like a failure. I felt like I had done something wrong. It was devastating to have my career taken away from me,” Burgbacher said. “I’m just proud that we’re taking steps forward, changing for the good. Now people will be aware of what we need. Ignorance of the law was a big part of this.”

Officials at the school, Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen, said Tuesday they “strongly disagree” with the ACLU’s claims and that they already were compliant with the law when Burgbacher’s job was eliminated due to organizational restructuring.

“It’s unfortunate that the ACLU chose to target the Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen to boast the ‘first public settlement of a lawsuit regarding the Nursing Mothers Act’. Especially in light of the fact that the plaintiff’s accusations were false, and that she was accommodated by the school in terms of time and space to express breast milk in accordance with the law and with RMAE’s policies and procedures around this issue,” said Dan Cohen, the school’s executive director.

“It appears that the ACLU may have been a bit over anxious to make a statement regarding this relatively new law, and our school was the unfortunate target,” Cohen added.

A lauded technology teacher for five years at the charter, Burgbacher said she had arranged for a fellow teacher to supervise her students while she took 20-minute breaks about three times each week to pump her milk for Dreya, the younger of her two daughters.

Burgbacher said she was told in February 2011 that her contract wouldn’t be renewed the following year. She said then that her supervisor cited disputes over her desire to pump milk as the cause for her dismissal.

“I was told, ‘Welcome to the school of hard knocks,’” Burgbacher said Tuesday as she and her lawyers announced the settlement. “I wasn’t willing to accept that. If you feel you have been wronged, then definitely explore it. Don’t be afraid to speak up to your HR person … if you’re facing issues that need to be investigated further.”

Officials at the charter school said the decision not to renew her contract had nothing to do with the pumping breaks she had sought. The school and Jefferson County Public Schools, the district authorizing the charter, did not admit any fault in the settlement and agreed to give Burgbacher positive letters of reference. Burgbacher has since found another job.

ACLU lawyers said the school has agreed to multiple concessions for future nursing mothers, including:

  • Full compliance with the Colorado Nursing Mothers Act
  • Written notice to employees regarding their rights under the law
  • A private location where mothers can express their milk
  • Notice to future employees who have filed harassment claims about the outcomes of any investigations

Burgbacher’s attorneys, Rebecca Wallace of the ACLU and Mari Newman of the law firm Killmer, Lane and Newman, both said Burgbacher’s case could help codify rights for other working mothers who want to pump at work in order to preserve their milk supply.

Heather Burgbacher, right, and one of her lawyers, Rebecca Wallace, at Tuesday’s press conference.

“This case serves as a real model for employers in Colorado that they can accommodate working mothers. The law simply doesn’t allow for discrimination,” Newman said. “This case certainly isn’t unique. Discrimination against working mothers certainly persists. This is just one of many examples of that.

“What’s significant about this is the efforts that the school has now made to accommodate future nursing mothers,” Newman said.

Until now, Wallace, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said the 2008 Colorado law had not been tested.

“The primary reason for taking the case, both for the ACLU and for Heather was to do public education and to teach employers what their responsibilities are and to teach employees how to stand up for their rights,” Wallace said.

In partnership
  • Health Policy Solutions, a non-profit health news website staffed by professional journalists, is a project of the Buechner Institute for Governance at the School of Public Affairs at CU-Denver.

Along with the ACLU, Burgbacher said she received help from local leaders of the breastfeeding support group, La Leche League International, and experts on breastfeeding and public health at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Burgbacher said she was pumping her milk in hopes of giving Dreya the healthiest start in life that she could.

“I wanted to get to a year. I try to be a hands-on mom,” Burgbacher said.

She believes breastfeeding is healthier for babies and said her older daughter, now 4, has never had an ear infection, for example.

“I saw the benefits (of breastfeeding). I wanted that to be the same for this one,” she said. “I know it’s important, not only for them physically, but also for the bond you establish.”

Burgbacher said employers should support mothers who breastfeed their babies.

“Do what you can to retain your valued employees. Breastfeeding is a huge commitment,” she said. “It’s a selfless act that needs support from everyone, your family, your spouse and your employer.”

Poverty in America

A Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection: Could vacant schools help fight homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.

*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.