"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 MomsRising.org, 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.
"I think people are just becoming aware of the law's protections," said Galen Sherwin, staff attorney at the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "We're very hopeful that as women learn about them and as employers learn more, these problems will start to arise less frequently. Women shouldn't have to choose between their jobs and feeding their babies."
Although the tight job market may make women think twice before speaking up at work, Rowe-Finkbeiner encourages nursing moms to assert their legal rights.
"It's important for women to remember that this law is new," she said. "When they're asking employers for a clean, private place to pump, they're not just asking for themselves but for their co-workers and the women that come after them."
When Compliance Isn't Good Enough
Some breastfeeding moms, while appreciative of the support their employers have shown them, say it's still not enough. Take "Nicole," a manager at an Ohio law firm. Although she considers herself "very lucky" that her employer recently set up a lactation room, she wishes her colleagues would show a bit more respect for the space.
"I have found office chairs crammed into it, co-workers or visitors using the phone, items in the fridge," Nicole said. "One of the maintenance guys almost walked in on me as he tried to unlock the door since it wasn't an 'in-use office.'"
And although Nicole has the flexibility to build pumping breaks into her daily schedule, her boss doesn't always honor them. "My boss would say things like, 'That's only when you need to pump -- you can change that, right?'" Nicole said of her first few months pumping on the job.
Then there's "Samantha," who's worked for a large pharmaceutical company for five years. Although she's able to shut her office door and pump at her desk, she sympathizes with the many cubicle workers at her company who do not have that option.
"I am surprised they still have not dedicated one room for pumping," Samantha said of her employer. "I always see pregnant women in the cafeteria and wonder, 'If they pump, where will they pump?' I did hear a woman pumping in the bathroom just last week and I felt sorry for the poor soul."
What Adequate Breastfeeding Support Looks Like
Breastfeeding mom Heather Kowalczyk will be the first to admit that she has it good at work. Besides being supportive of her taking breaks throughout the day to pump -- even during multi-hour meetings -- her employer has allocated a private office for nursing moms to pump, complete with locking door, desk, chair and mini-fridge.
"Our company has affectionately dubbed this room 'The Mommy Suite,' and there is a cute little sign on the door to prove it," said Kowalczyk, a senior account executive at Martino Flynn, LLC, a marketing firm in Rochester, N.Y. "Since we all work on laptops, I'm able to take my computer in there and continue working while pumping."
Kowalczyk, who's in her eighth month of breastfeeding her daughter, is hoping to be able to nurse for an entire year. "Because I work full time, it would be impossible without the support of my company," Kowalczyk said. "I know breastfeeding is something that a lot of mothers have to give up when they return to work. I am so grateful that I'm not one of them."
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist and former cubicle dweller. She is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube". For more information, see Anti9to5Guide.com.