Iesha Gray called it the drought.
One month back from maternity leave, her breasts were empty. No more milk. Her baby girl at home was drinking her way through the freezer stash.
Gray was 20, a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service who drove a truck or van in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. The drought happened, she said, because she wasn’t given time or space she found acceptable to pump breast milk.
So Gray was faced with a choice: Quit working and nurse little Daveah, or keep working and switch to formula.
Pumping – which moms do to express breast milk, often on the job – became one of many rights for women under the Affordable Care Act of 2010, or Obamacare. Employers with 50 or more workers must give moms space and time to pump. It’s unclear whether President-elect Donald Trump would eliminate this right if he gets rid of Obamacare, as he has promised to do.
Gray assumed her work would provide a place where she could pump. But on her first day back from maternity leave, she said her supervisors didn’t answer her about where she should pump.
“The first day, they give me this long route; I didn't pump all day,” she said. “That's just the most painful thing you can ever feel, having to walk around for eight hours a day with milk swollen.”
On her second day back, she said her supervisors suggested she pump in her truck.
No way, she said: It was dark and filthy back there, with the mail and dust. “That’s just like feeding a baby in the restroom,” Gray said.
In a statement, the Postal Service said the agency “prides itself as an accommodating workplace and routinely provides options for nursing mothers.”
“That seems to be a couple of accommodations," USPS spokesman John Friess said, hearing a reporter's account of Gray's case. "What’s the other option?”
Gray suggested that would be a temporary job at a station while she was nursing. But she said her supervisors refused.
Gray could, they said, return to the station throughout the day – breaks unpaid. When she tried that, she ended up spending 11 hours away from her infant.
Gray’s story illustrates how hard it is for some employers to accommodate moms’ pumping needs. KUOW has reported extensively on the nursing mothers law and heard from dozens of moms that their bosses were simply ignorant about the requirements and the needs.
Employers aren't the only ones: A midwife she saw as her supply dwindled suggested she switch to formula, but Gray was determined to nurse her baby. She’d read about the benefits, and her best friend had nursed her own daughter, which inspired her. And Gray said that when she and Davaeh first tried, it was “easy as 1-2-3.” To stop nursing when it was so natural for her and her daughter felt like a failure.
So, in August, she quit. This job she had dreamed about since she was a kid: over.
“USPS is not a female/family friendly work environment,” Gray wrote in her resignation letter. “Being forced to resign because I want to exclusively breastfeed my baby is unconscionable.”
She said she was sharing her story with KUOW because she wanted to shed light on her working conditions – and hopefully help other moms like her.
The week after she quit, Gray couldn’t say if the Postal Service had broken the federal law. Even attorneys and officials with the U.S. Department of Labor said they would have to examine her case. But those contacted by KUOW said they found her case egregious.
“The facts are just ugly,” said attorney Jack Sheridan, who heard Gray’s story from a reporter. “You want people to be treated with dignity. They put her in the position where she’s going to get the job done or lose the ability to breastfeed.”
The federal nursing mothers law says that pumping spaces can’t be bathrooms and must be “shielded from view and free from intrusion.” The law is enforced by the labor department.
Patricia Canites, deputy director for the Department of Labor office in Sacramento, has seen several nursing mom cases come through her office. She said these cases are “high priority” and are investigated immediately. They must act quickly, she said, or a mother may lose her ability to produce milk. Pumping is necessary to maintain a mom’s milk supply.
“It affects a woman’s right to express milk,” Canites said.
She recalled another case involving a postal worker on the conveyer belt who wasn’t given time to pump.
There was also an ambulance driver who made a winning case against pumping in the back, where they put patients.
It could be Gray’s case, too: that the back of the truck was unsanitary for pumping. But the case would have to be examined individually.
But for Gray’s daughter’s pediatrician, this was an example of clear wrongdoing. Dr. Molly Capron wrote letters in support of Gray to the U.S. Postal Service.
“Iesha is such a great example of a young mom who was trying to do all the right things for her baby,” Capron told KUOW by email.
“She is a determined, confident and well-spoken young woman who is an effective advocate for herself and her child. Even so, and even with letters of support, her employer did not provide the necessary accommodations.”
Capron continued, “We always hear that young, single, African-American moms are less likely to breastfeed even when controlling for other socioeconomic factors.”
Doctors and public health officials encourage women of color to breastfeed, because it reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS. African-Americans have more than twice the rate of infant deaths than white babies.
Capron said Gray’s story was a reminder that many women may want to breastfeed, but can’t for professional reasons beyond their control.
In Gray's case, there may have been another factor in the drought: dehydration. Mail carriers drink little water on the job, because finding a bathroom is tricky. But nursing moms must drink lots of water to produce enough milk.
Gray ultimately managed to get her milk supply back to feed her baby. But it came at a cost.
“It’s just shockingly bad how they treated me, Gray said. “I felt like my life was over.”