O'FALLON, Mo. (KMOV.com) -- A local woman said she was fired from her job because she was pumping breast milk after giving birth.
Her former employer disputes it, saying she was fired for other reasons.
But many women say they don't know their rights when it comes to pumping at work. Laws exist to protect working moms. Are employers violating their rights?
Rashel Lea breastfed two kids of her own. Then, a couple of years ago, she decided she wanted to give other couples the gift of being parents. She's been a surrogate, or gestational carrier, three separate times.
“There's no way to describe that, other than pure happiness,” she said.
And after the most recent pregnancy, she donated her breast milk.
“I decided I was still going to pump, I wanted somebody's baby to get it,” Lea said.
Many experts argue breast milk is best for babies: rich in nutrients, antibodies and all-natural.
After her most recent surrogacy, Lea asked for time to pump during her schedule as a hairdresser at the Julius Monroe salon in O'Fallon, Missouri.
“It just didn't happen. It just wasn't put on the schedule,” she said. “I didn't know what my rights were at the time."
So she would squeeze in pump sessions whenever she could, using the breakroom shared by employees and the salon's owner.
“At one point the owner’s husband was back there while I was pumping because I didn't have anywhere else to go,” she said.
Lea said she'd pump in the car on the way to work, tucking hands-free collection cups in her bra and then wearing them into her salon. The tubes from the pump would stick out of her clothes.
“Once I got to work, I would empty my collection cups, store it, so I could start my day” she said.
But Lea says her boss didn't like that.
“She said that I wasn't allowed to bring my breast pump into work anymore,” she recalled
Lea pushed back.
“I was just very confused why she didn't want me to come in with it and she just kept saying she had a business to worry about,” she said.
Not long after, Lea was fired.
When asked if she thought she was retaliated against for pumping at work, Lea didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah. Absolutely,” she said.
“I thought this was unbelievable,” said Lea's attorney Edwin C. Ernst IV, who filed a suit against the salon.
“It’s a balancing act so that nursing mothers can nurse and pursue their careers and dreams without fear of being fired,” he said.
But federal laws protecting nursing moms are pretty new, passed under Obamacare.
They require employers, regardless of the number of employees, to provide reasonable break time from work to express breast milk for one year after a child's birth.
The law also requires a "place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public."
News 4 went to Julius Monroe Salon to get answers about Lea's situation and ultimately sat down with their attorney Joel Eisenstein, who adamantly denied discrimination. He said her rights to pump were not violated and that she was accommodated to pump.
Instead, Eisensten said Lea was fired because of complaints from clients about her work.
“The problems with her performance are well documented and that's an issue we will prove in court,” he said.
Eisensten indicated that Lea could have pumped in the restroom, saying she “could have always gone into the restroom had she chosen to do that,” he said.
He maintains that the salon had a right to tell Lea not to wear her pump into the salon.
“I think an employer has the right to protect its business interests and do things that are not offensive to the patrons,” he said.
Their battle is now heading from the workplace to a courtroom.
Lea said she just wants other moms to know they have rights.
“I don't want to feel like you have to pick between having a job and a career and being a good mom,” she said.
Lea’s attorney acknowledged Lea was written up 18 months ago, but said the argument that her performance justified her termination is “made up, after the fact.”
A number of laws could apply in a situation involving pumping in the workplace, including pregnancy-based discrimination, hostile work environment, and the laws regarding break time and a designated place to pump.
Some employers are exempt from some of the laws.