Lactating border agent fired, fights for job

Posted at: 02/12/2014 10:57 PM
By: Ryan Luby, KOB Eyewitness News 4

A New Mexico woman said the Border Patrol forced her to make a decision: Be a mother or be an agent.

Sophia Cruz, who worked at the agency’s station in Lordsburg, said she simply wanted to pump and store her breast milk at work.  But she said her superiors violated orders from her doctor and one of the agency’s programs designed for nursing mothers.

“All I wanted to do was nurse my daughter.  And all I wanted to do was be a mom and an agent,” Cruz said in an interview with 4 On Your Side Investigator Ryan Luby.

The Border Patrol fired her in April for failing and refusing to take a test to keep her firearms certification current.

Cruz said the agency never set up the test and never supplied her with a new armored vest that’s required to take the test.  She said the shape of her body changed considerably after pregnancy.

Even if the agency had supplied Cruz with a properly-fitted vest, her doctor didn’t want her to wear it for extended periods of time since it could hinder the flow of her breast milk.  Cruz’s doctor also told the agency, repeatedly, that she should work light duty, avoid altercations and night shifts.

“They kept using the word recommendations, that the doctors were merely making recommendations,” Cruz said of her superiors.

Ray Martinez, Cruz’s attorney in El Paso, said he recently presented the case to an arbitrator.

“I think the issue was that they always approached this as Agent Cruz wanted special treatment,” he said of the Border Patrol.

Yet Martinez said his client was merely asking for the agency to follow guidelines established through its Lactation Support Program, or LSP, which it implemented in 2011.  LSP allows “reasonable break time” for employees who are nursing mothers up to one year after they give birth.

Additionally, the LSP requires the agency to have sanitized lactation rooms – not restrooms – in which employees can pump breast milk and store it in a small refrigerator.

“I think basically the evidence and testimony that was presented in this case laid out pretty clearly that they treated her differently, they treated her negatively,” Martinez said.

He produced a copy of a letter that Mark Woody, Assistant Chief Patrol Agent, sent to Cruz in January 2013. Although Woody wrote that Cruz made a “laudable decision” to care for her child, he explained that in the competing interests of being both a mother and a border patrol agent she “may resign from employment” or return to full duty.

Woody wrote, “We need you back on full duty.”

Cruz began working for the Border Patrol in 2010 after she left her job as assistant controller at the Santa Fe New Mexican.

“Working at the newspaper was interesting and different, but you sit at a desk every day, you see the same people every day, basically do the same thing every day,” she said.

Cruz said she comes from a law enforcement family and found the idea of protecting the nation’s border exciting despite the remote locations she was hired to patrol.

“It's never the same. You go one day from driving down the road, to seeing a vehicle, jumping out of your car and chasing somebody.  Or going on a 14-mile hike,” she said.

However, not long after she became pregnant in late 2011, she explained that she experienced hostility from management.  She said she felt like she was a “nuisance” to them.

The Border Patrol’s communications team declined to discuss the specifics of Cruz’s case, due to the pending litigation and arbitration process that’s still underway, but they issued a statement:

“Customs and Border Protection is dedicated to the health and well-being of all of its employees and is constantly looking for programs and initiatives that positively impact their work environment. The Lactation Support Program is one such program that was designed to enhance the quality of work life for employees who are nursing mothers. CBP understands the stress and challenges of having a new baby and is concerned for the health and well-being of all employees by providing needed worksite assistance. Pre-designated areas are provided for employees needing accommodations and employees are responsible for providing their own equipment and maintaining the cleanliness of the lactation rooms. Full-time and part-time CBP employees are eligible to participate in the program. CBP fully supports the Lactation Program which was enacted January 25, 2011.”

Cruz said she’s not fighting the agency to land a large settlement.  She said she simply wants her job back and wants the agency to follow its own rules.

Cruz is pregnant with a second child and expects to give birth soon.

Martinez said he expects to hear a decision from the arbitrator in a few weeks.