Breastfeeding and The Office: A Marriage Made in, Well, Not Heaven

I am quite sure the bartenders at the Cellar Bar had no idea what I was handing them. Maybe they thought it was a new type of mixer. But whatever they thought (they didn’t ask), I am positive it was the first, and probably last, Medela pumping bottle of breast milk that they ever put on ice alongside the Grey Goose and other high end adult beverages. That was my firm’s Holiday Party after-party in 2011.

I breast fed my children for a long time. My daughter, who is now 5, was never particularly interested in nursing and I stopped pumping when she was 15 months old and I went on antibiotics for shingles. We thought my son, who is almost two and a half, would nurse until he went to college. He weaned himself during his first week of preschool. I loved nursing both of my children and know the benefits that it brings – and brought – to all of us. But I was lucky. I still am lucky. My employer provided me with support for my work and my personal life. I had an office where I could close (and lock) the door and pump breast milk for my children. One of my colleagues loaned me her mini fridge to store the pumped milk during the work day (now I use it for my lunch). I didn’t volunteer my behind-closed-door-activity, but I didn’t hide it from colleagues who asked either. Unless, occasionally, a client could hear the dull hum of the pump over a conference call; that I deemed “phone line interference”.

Unfortunately, however, many working moms stop breastfeeding when they return to work because they just aren’t afforded the time or privacy to pump or the ability to nurse their babies while on the job. Employment is now the norm for U.S. women of childbearing age. In 2015, 54% of all mothers with children younger than 12 months were employed, and 73% of those employed worked full-time (35 or more hours per week). Employed women currently are less likely to initiate breastfeeding, and they tend to breastfeed for a shorter length of time than women who are not employed. Most employed mothers who are lactating must express milk at work for their children. How can a mom, whose job requires her to be in public all day long, find “reasonable break time” in a “private place” to pump? The law provides some provisions that protect breast feeding and employees should not be afraid to take advantage of those laws.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, enacted in 2010, requires most employers to provide non-exempt breast-feeding employees with “reasonable break time” and a private place (which cannot be a bathroom), to express milk during the workday until the child turns one year old. The private place must be “shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public”.  That means that a non-exempt employer must provide a private space, which is not a bathroom, for a mom to pump. The employer is not required to compensate an employee receiving reasonable break time for any work time spent for such purpose unless the employee is routinely provided compensated breaks; then an employee who uses that break time to pump must be compensated in the same manner as other employees. Some states have also passed laws which support breastfeeding mothers and the Right to Breastfeed Act (included as part of a Treasury-Postal Appropriations bill) permits a woman to breastfeed her child “at any location in a Federal building or on Federal property, if the woman and her child are otherwise authorized to be present at the location.”

The bottom line for a new mom who wants to continue breastfeeding and working: don’t be afraid to ask for breastfeeding accommodations; in many cases, the law supports you. Olena Borkowsky, MSN, RN, CBC, suggests speaking with a lactation consultant who can help with the transition back to work. And if you have questions about what accommodations should be provided, don’t hesitate to reach out to an attorney for advice.

 

Based in New York City, Sarah E. Bell is an attorney with Pryor Cashman and is a member of the firm’s Litigation, Labor + Employment, Family Law, Intellectual Property and Media + Entertainment Groups.