More and more mothers are breastfeeding their children, but it still seems to be a topic of debate when it comes to where and when women, especially working moms, can do it.
Some women, like Liesel Diolosa, whose daughter will be a year old next month, have been fortunate when it comes to pumping in the workplace. “We have a private room with a refrigerator that we can use to pump and store the milk,” said Diolosa. “I'm able to schedule my meetings around when I have to pump and take as much time as I need.”
Not everyone is that lucky. Regina Rivera, a human resources executive and mother of two, says that some places she’s worked haven’t been very accommodating. “At one of my previous companies, a woman used to hide in the IT closet to pump and one day the IT guy walked in on her.”
Now, one little known section of President Obama’s new health care reform law is on track to fix that. It requires employers to provide break time and private space for nursing mothers to pump breast milk at work.
This new legislation amends the existing Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the federal laws that set working standards like minimum wage and overtime pay.
The new section added to the FLSA says that an employer must provide "reasonable break time" for an employee to “express breast milk” until her child turns a year old and that the company must be flexible as far as the timing and length of those breaks. The breaks, however, do not need to be paid, unless the business already provides compensated breaks and a woman is using that time to pump. While the rules don’t say an employer has to create a dedicated lactation center; employers do need to make sure there’s a suitable, private space available. Under the statute, a bathroom is not an acceptable spot.
“Most employers want to do the right thing by their employees, and this act helps educate them,” said Ann Marie Lindquist, the director of the Nursing Mothers’ Council. She believes this new legislation is a step in the right direction and will bring more understanding in the workplace.
Some corporations have already gone beyond what will be required of them. Rivera’s current employer provides “Wellness Rooms” for female employees to pump breast milk.
“In the room is a comfortable chair, an electrical socket, a supply of paper towels for clean-up and a small refrigerator for storage. Only those who need the facility have badge access to it to ensure privacy,” says Rivera. She hopes that with the new regulations in place, other businesses will follow in the footsteps of her employer. “Perhaps, they will simply now become mainstream.”
There are a few exceptions to the new law. Companies with less than 50 workers don't have to give breastfeeding breaks if they can show that doing so would cause an "undue hardship."
Twenty-four states already have their own laws about breastfeeding in the workplace and this new legislation wouldn’t replace those existing rules if the state’s law is more comprehensive. For example, the federal rules effectively apply only to women who are paid an hourly wage, but there are some state laws that also benefit salaried employees.
Working mothers, like Diolosa, are excited about the new federal requirements because they believe they will cultivate an atmosphere of understanding in the workplace for all mothers that will actually encourage more women to pump for longer periods. “I credit the supportive environment at my office as part of the reason I've been able to continue breastfeeding for the past 10 months. I know many women stop much earlier.”
Many male workers also want their female counterparts to be allowed time and private place to pump breast milk. John Keegan, who works in Boston, recalls that one of his co-workers had to pump in her office. “I went to talk to her in her office and she was drying something on her desk which she had forgotten to put away. It was part of a pumping machine.” And he admits that his former co-worker is in the minority of women who have had a spot to pump saying, “What if you work in a cubicle or only have a desk or what if you have neither? Then you don’t have any privacy to do this.”
Although the breastfeeding provision took effect when the president signed the Affordable Care Act last year, the Department of Labor (DOL) is still working on guidelines to help businesses correctly accommodate workers.
The new law doesn’t specify any penalty if an employer violates the requirements, but an employee is able to file a complaint with the DOL, which could seek injunctive relief in a federal court. If an employee is discriminated against for taking the allowed breaks, she could also file a private cause of action seeking reinstatement, lost wages, or other appropriate remedies.
While this law does not cover all nursing mothers in the workplace, Lindquist feels that it will encourage other working moms to fight for themselves. “Many workers are not covered by the provisions of this act. However, it does protect some of our most vulnerable women in the workplace. And what I’ve seen is that the existence of legislation like this raises awareness with employers and the public and empowers women who might not be covered by these provisions to negotiate with their employers, to ask for a clean place to pump milk and time to do it.”
What do you think about pumping at work-- yes or no-- and should employers be required to provide private space?