Nursing Moms: When Employers Make it Hard to Pump

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"Michal," a human resources manager and nursing mother, pumps her breast milk three times a day from the public bathroom at work. (Like many women interviewed for this column, Michal did not want her real name used for fear of jeopardizing her job.)

"Katya," an admin, was given a spare IT room to pump in. Problem is, the room is frequently occupied by company visitors. Plus, she was told she could only use the room to pump twice a day instead of the three times she needs. And Jessica, a receptionist, was told by her employer that if she wanted to keep her job she'd have to give up breastfeeding altogether.

"I lost my apartment, I had to move in with my mother," said Jessica, who was fired from her job two weeks after giving birth. She's since hired a lawyer and is in the process of settling with her former employer out of court.

In March 2010, a change to the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) went into effect, requiring many employers to provide nursing moms with ample pumping breaks and a clean, private place that isn't a bathroom for pumping during the first year of their child's life. Many states have their own workplace pumping laws, too.

Nevertheless, stories like those of Michal, Katya and Jessica abound. I've spoken with numerous moms forced to pump breast milk in uncomfortable, unsanitary, public spaces at work. With no better alternative, some simply opt to pump in their car.

"We hear stories from moms who are struggling with this issues all the time," said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of, a non-profit organization that advocates for family-friendly legislation. "It's not uncommon for us to hear stories about moms who've been forced to pump in storage closets containing chemicals."

Why the Lag in Workplace Compliance?

A national survey of 422 U.S. workers conducted this March by Workplace Options, an organization that offers employers work-life benefits, found that only 44 percent of those polled had a clean, private place to pump breast milk at work. What's more, 36 percent said their schedule at work was not flexible enough for them to take pumping breaks.

Part of the problem is that the new federal breastfeeding regulations, which were passed with last year's health care reform package, only apply to hourly employees, who typically have less on-the-job flexibility than office workers. In addition, under federal law, organizations with less than 50 employees are not required to grant workers pumping breaks if doing so "would impose an undue hardship" on the company, a provision some legal experts say is open to interpretation.

It doesn't help that many workers aren't aware of the new FSLA breastfeeding provisions. According to the Workplace Options survey, 57 percent of workers polled had no idea the law existed, even though six in 10 said they'd prefer to work for an employer supportive of a mother's ability to pump on the job.

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