For many breastfeeding moms, “Would you make a sandwich in the bathroom?” has become their unfortunate retort to American bosses. Workplace resistance to accommodating breastfeeding is rampant for stereotypically capitalistic reasons; it is inconvenient, it costs more, it cuts productivity. There are countless studies indicating the opposite: that accommodating breastfeeding moms enhances long-term productivity by, among other things, cutting down on sick leave and increasing employee satisfaction. However, even in the face of federal laws enacted back in 2010, ignorance empowers some employers to balk at the notion that women should pump breast milk outside of a bathroom stall. How embarrassing! So many working moms, already harboring guilt that they can’t be home with their kids, now demeaned at work for pumping breast milk?
It is truly up to working women these days to empower themselves by educating employers about the legal protections that exist. It is important to note that our laws do not go far enough in protecting women. Women must ban together to advocate for more.
For any breastfeeding mom, knowing your rights is the first step. Back in 2010, Obamacare’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act granted new federal rights to breastfeeding moms. First, you are entitled to reasonable break times to pump milk as frequently as needed. For some women, this could mean up to a half hour every two to three hours. The law is not entirely clear on what “reasonable” means and so it is still up for interpretation. However, it’s safe to say that if you are approaching engorgement you should be allowed to pump. Feel free to take a picture of your full breasts if you meet any resistance. Evidence is always helpful when forced to enforce a legal right.
You have a right to NOT make your milk in a filthy bathroom.
Next, you have a right to NOT make your milk in a filthy bathroom. You are entitled to a private space, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public. Unfortunately, the law is not specific as to what type of accommodation this should be, so, technically, even if it’s a supply closet with a chair, that may be considered sufficient.
Hooray for icy states with warm hearts, like Alaska. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is leading the way in decency by handing out fifteen $1000 stipends to businesses to create breastfeeding space in work environments. The magnificent milking station dubbed the “Mamava Pod” will have a lock and an electrical outlet to plug in a pump and will be clean and quiet.
Meanwhile, in places like Philadelphia, where our founding fathers indoctrinated our constitutional rights, lawmakers have struggled to pass expansive breastfeeding laws. Since 2014, a bill protecting women in the workplace has met resistance from private business lobbyists over concerns that employers could end up in court battles for not following the law. Shouldn't they? Other states have passed similar laws with more ease because most state breastfeeding laws lack enforcement provisions. This means the following: if your employer violates the law, your legal recourse is limited to filing a complaint through the Department of Labor. It’s a slow bureaucratic process that likely results in a mere rebuke. This means most state breastfeeding laws may act as a threat, but in practice they are just a farce.
Most state breastfeeding laws may act as a threat, but in practice they are just a farce.
So why do we even need state laws to protect women if federal protections exist? The reason is that the federal law is also fraught with exceptions that are, quite frankly, appalling. The law only protects women for up to a year after the birth of a child, so if you want to breastfeed for two years, you are at the mercy of your employer. The law also lets employers dock your pay during breastfeeding breaks, sad but true. The law does not apply to businesses with less than fifty employees so long as a business can prove that accommodating breastfeeding moms would pose an undue financial hardship. To top it all off, the law doesn’t apply to a variety of people, such as independent contractors, students, employees of seasonal amusement parks, newspaper delivery women, employees of movie theaters and other jaw-dropping ridiculous exceptions. Reminds me of New Jersey’s law that men can’t knit during fishing season.
Since our federal law is largely incompetent, it is up to the states to fill in the gaps. Yet, only twenty-eight states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have laws related to breastfeeding in the workplace. Some, like Colorado, expand the federal law so that women may breastfeed at work for up to two years. Others, like New York, empower women with a breastfeeding Bill of Rights. Yet no state truly fills the gaps required to completely meet the needs of breastfeeding moms. Furthermore, there is a glaring lack of uniformity in the law, depending on where you live and work.
On a positive note, the National Business Group on Health spent considerable time devising a guide for employers and employees to follow to enhance work-related breastfeeding conditions. The guide includes suggestions on how to implement a satisfactory program, such as providing refrigerator space for breast milk and other seemingly minor details that could very well become a source of conflict if left up to interpretation. It would be constructive for states and even the federal government to adopt a guide like this and require employers follow it. If you’d like to empower yourself or your friends, click here to find out about your state law protections. If you aren’t satisfied with them, go ahead and send suggestions to your local politicians, start a petition, make a fuss … because progress has no greater foe than complacency.
Legal commentator Amy Dash is an attorney and two-time Emmy Award winning reporter and producer.