Breastfeeding mothers continue to struggle in the workplace

Breastfeeding still at odds with workplace norms in the U.S.

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Three times a day Caitlin Poliak goes into a cold, windowless basement in her office building to pump breast milk for her six-month old daughter. She goes into a four by eight foot, single-use bathroom, where she has set up a padded chair and folding table. She uses a space heater to warm up the room.

Poliak says her employer supports her choice to pump. But it is still a challenge for her since she works for a small architectural firm in Portland where there is no other feasible place in the office for her to express milk apart from the conference room. That is not ideal because it has a glass door and windows that face onto the street.

A lot of women in the U.S. face the same challenges of poor accommodations for expressing breast milk when they return to work after having a baby. Many women want to continue to breast feed their babies as recommended by health experts. The World Health Organization, for example, recommends mothers exclusively breast feed for the first six months and continue up to two years of age and beyond.

But these proposals are at odds with workplace norms in the U.S. where the lack of federally mandated paid parental leave means many women return to work prematurely for financial reasons. In fact, nearly a quarter of women in the U.S. return to their jobs within two weeks after having a baby. It is an extraordinary statistic for an industrialized nation, which remains a world outlier for its lack of mandatory paid parental leave. 

Pumping is really the only option for working women in the U.S. who want to continue to breast feed their babies.  And indeed laws support pumping at work. In Oregon, the law states that employers with more than 25 employees have to provide staff with a private space, which cannot be a toilet stall or restroom, to express milk up to 30 minutes every four hours.  However, breaks do not have to be paid. And any employer can request exemption from the law because of undue hardship it causes their business.

Although Oregon’s law has a lower employee threshold for compliance  — federal law applies to employers with more than 50 employees — many women work for companies that have fewer than 25 members of staff and often find themselves in situations where expressing milk is a challenge.

Pumping is a unique U.S. solution to breastfeeding mothers that need to return early to work. In the absence of paid parental leave, mothers have more protections for expressing milk than spending time breastfeeding their babies.

As political scientist Courtney Jung, author of the book Lactivism, said in a recent interview with Working Mother magazine: “Pumping is compatible with U.S. government policies because it’s business-friendly; it’s all about maintaining a competitive economy and labor force. It’s not primarily a benefit to mothers and children. That’s the reason it’s important to point a finger at what we’re actually doing in the U.S. Maybe some women will want to continue doing it and some women won’t, but we should at least know what is actually going on here.”

It has to be said that not all women working for small companies have bad experiences expressing milk. Carolyn Knees, translation services manager at NWI Global, a Vancouver, WA-based language services provider, says her employer “is above and beyond supportive” of her choice to pump. Despite being exempt from the law that provides protections for nursing mothers, her employer provided her with a private office that has curtains and a lock.  “They let me guide them in letting them know what I needed,” says Knees. “I am very lucky.”

But even large employers that have to comply with the law can have inadequate accommodations for nursing mothers. An employee who works for a large company in the health sector and who asked not to be identified says that in her office building the two pump rooms are so crowded that women have to reserve the space six months in advance.  Even an area that is sectioned off in the restroom for expressing milk is always busy and needs to be reserved too.

Her manager allows her and a co-worker to pump in a conference room instead. But even that is not ideal since the room is also used for meetings. There have been occasions when the room has been booked for other uses and she hasn’t been able to pump.

“We have asked for more facilities because so many of us are pumping. There are options for pumping but there are more and more moms and the options are not expanding,” she says.

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Even if pumping accommodations are provided the demands of the workplace are often not conducive to milk expression. Jennifer Sonntag, associate director of Reed College’s annual fund, started a new job at the Portland liberal arts school when she was eight months pregnant. She moved jobs because her previous position would not have offered her as much work/life balance. For financial reasons, among others, she went back to work part-time just one week after giving birth, and went full time after one month. 

Her manager supported her choice to pump but she was left to find her own space to express milk and used the convenience of a private bathroom adjacent to her office.  (Nearly a year ago Reed College opened a pump room for faculty and staff).   At one time she was away from her office at a training session and ended up having to pump in a toilet stall that didn’t have a working lock. She stood there with a pump in one hand and held the door shut with another.  (I have pumped breast milk and I can vouch that this is not an ideal situation to express milk.)

Eventually Sonntag says she stopped producing milk because of the stress of balancing a new job and a newborn. “You can have the plush surroundings of a pump room but if your stress level is such that you can’t let go, it is not even helpful to have a pump room. It happens a lot to mothers that go back soon after having a baby,” she says.

For Andrea Paluso, executive director of Family Forward Oregon, an advocacy group for family-friendly policies, the priority for her organization is to push for new parents to have adequate paid parental leave. This way mothers can have enough time to establish bonding and breastfeeding, which often takes time to do effectively.

“Far too many women go back to work too early. We see many women not return to work because they don’t have access to paid leave and can’t pay for day care,” says Paluso. “We have protected time and space for mothers to express milk rather than having protected time for them to be with their children. If we want women to have choices, we need to support them at home.”

Paid leave may soon be on the horizon for more new parents in the U.S. In April this year San Francisco became the first U.S. city to approve six weeks of fully paid leave for new parents. And more big names in business, such as Netflix and Facebook, are expanding their paid time off policies for new parents.

But most women still don’t have this luxury and will continue to navigate the difficulties of expressing milk in the workplace. My message to all employers, big and small: If you are not going to pay your employee parental leave, giving her an adequate place to pump that is not the restroom is really the least you can do. 

Don’t miss our Hot Topics/Cool Talks panel discussion June 28th:  The Childcare Dilemma: How Employers are Redefining Work, Family and Parental Leave.   Register here.