Family Matters

Pumping at Work: The Government Asks Working Moms How They Do It

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Boobs and bosses: it’s a combination that can unsettle even the savviest supervisor. That’s why the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has issued a widespread “request for information” from employees, employers and breast-feeding advocates to share insight and personal stories about how they’ve managed to abide by the new law mandating break time for nursing mothers.

Approved in March 2010 as part of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), the law requires employers to provide “reasonable” break time and a private place other than a bathroom where a working mom can express breast milk for her nursing baby.

When the DOL comment period ended Tuesday, the agency had received enough submissions to keep dozens of federal employees busy reading for days. They’ll comb through the testimonies and suggestions, culling useful tidbits for inclusion in what amounts to a blueprint it plans to issue soon about how to make pumping at work…work. (More on Time.com: Top 10 Breastfeeding Controversies)

(The bathroom clause represents a significant victory for nursing mothers. For some inexplicable reason, employers have long carved out nursing dens for pumping employees right next to a toilet stall. Speaking from experience, the ick factor was considerable. After all, if you wouldn’t prepare your own food in the lavatory, why should you prepare baby’s there?)

Contrary to some news reports, businesses that employ fewer than 50 people are not exempt — unless they can prove setting aside space would cause “significant difficulty or expense.” In the event that a state already has a nursing-breaks law in place — and about half of them do — the stronger legislation would prevail.

“This is recognition about the importance of breast-feeding and about how much more difficult it is to continue breast-feeding when you return to work without adequate breaks,” says Ashley Boyd, a campaign director for MomsRising, a million-member grassroots organization that advocates for family-friendly policies. (More on Time.com: Breast-Feeding: It Takes a Village to Help Moms Succeed)

One of the key themes in comments solicited by MomsRising for submission to the DOL was the importance of privacy. “I used a common file room to pump and placed a sign on the door when I was in there pumping,” wrote one woman. “The door was password-protected but could not be locked from the inside. It was nerve-wracking because I never knew when a colleague may come into the room while I was half-naked pumping.”

Another wrote that after her first child, she pumped in a room that locked, with a sink and a paper-towel dispenser, on the same floor where she worked, which meant her employer “benefited from this situation in that I could pump when I needed to, continue to work if I needed to and I spent a minimal amount of downtime with pumping.” Now, at a different job after the birth of her second child, she is allowed to pump milk in the communal copier room or the director’s office, where she has been “walked in on by men with keys.” That led her to leave the building and pump in her car, which she calls a “terrible compromise” and “much less comfortable and efficient” because “I lose a lot of time tromping back and forth between my desk and my car.”

It’s exactly this sort of feedback that the government is looking for. “We are pleased by the level of interest in this issue and by the hundreds of comments received so far,” says DOL spokesperson Dolline Hatchett. “We believe this wealth of input will only allow us to issue more meaningful, relevant and helpful guidance.” (More on Time.comBreast-Feeding Gets a Nod from the IRS: Pumps are Deductible)

This is just the latest in a string of federal moves that signals the government thinks it’s important to help mothers achieve their breast-feeding goals. Earlier this month, the Internal Revenue Service categorized breast pumps as tax-deductible health-care expenses. Last month, the Surgeon General issued her first “Call to Action” about the importance of support for breast-feeding mothers. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics advises women to breast-feed for one year, only 22% of mothers hang in that long.

That might be because being a nursing mom who works is not so easy to do. Workplace environments and schedules vary widely; a woman who works in an office building may simply need access to a small room with a door. But what about a bus driver? A kindergarten teacher? A doctor at a hospital?

One ER physician told of pumping at the hospital in the doctors’ “call room,” where, on occasion, “other physicians blew past my sign and walked in on me, on their way to the bathroom. They may be doctors, but they are still my colleagues, and they were pretty embarrassed at seeing my breasts exposed.” She told of “silent pressure” from nurses and doctors to hold off pumping and keep seeing patients until her breasts became painfully engorged and leaked milk. “Ultimately,” she wrote, “I stopped nursing much sooner than a year because I felt so much resistance to my pumping that I couldn’t keep it up adequately to maintain my milk supply.”

As welcome as the new law is, there are some provisions that rankle, namely that employers “shall not be required to compensate an employee receiving reasonable break time.” With the majority of mothers in the workforce, exempting employers from paying moms while they pump — ideally a 20-minute undertaking every 4 hours or so — seems to send the message that work and family life don’t mix. (More on Time.comStudy: Breast-Feeding Moms Get Just as Much (or Little) Rest as Formula-Feeders)

The International Labour Organization, a branch of the United Nations, endorses paid nursing breaks — as do many other countries — but the U.S. charts a different course, just as it does when it comes to paid maternity leave, which is not standard in this country.

Still, says Chris Mulford, who leads the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee’s task force on the new law, it’s a matter of being happy with your lot. Making the breaks unpaid, after all, sweetened the somewhat tough-to-swallow legislation for employers.

Says Mulford: “We see it as such a terrific step forward for the U.S. to even consider any kind of nursing breaks.”

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