Why Is Breastfeeding in the Workplace Still Such a Contentious Topic?

Why Is Breastfeeding in the Workplace Still Such a Contentious Topic?

In case you haven’t noticed, the United States—and society as a whole, tbh—loves to police people’s bodies, especially those who are able to give birth. While we were busy mourning the end of Roe v. Wade (where abortion is now illegal or at least heavily restricted in 11 states), there was another fight over bodily autonomy happening: breastfeeding at work.

Wait, what happened?

On June 26, 2022, the Senate failed to pass a bill that would further protect breastfeeding workers, called The Providing Urgent Maternal Protections (PUMP) For Nursing Mothers Act (more on that later). Right now, there is a law in place, called The Break Time for Nursing Mothers (passed in 2010), that allows breastfeeding people to take two to three breaks per eight-hour workday for up to one year after the child’s birth. And that’s great and all, but it only goes so far. The current law doesn’t protect nearly 9 million employees, like teachers, nurses, farmers and other salaried workers that don’t meet the law’s complicated requirements. [Update: The PUMP Act was passed in May.]

That’s why the PUMP Act was introduced in 2021: it would give those 9 million employees the same benefits as those protected under the Break Time law, as well as extend the amount of time you could breastfeed if you were also working at the same time (talk about multitasking) and extend the time period from one year to two years, as per the new public health guidelines. Plus, it would give every breastfeeding employee access to a private, non-bathroom space to pump.

“The requirements are so simple that in most settings a simple curtain or the freedom to use a wearable breast pump is all it takes to comply,” says Cheryl Lebedevitch, the senior policy and communications manager at the United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) which has helped shepherd the PUMP Act through the legislative process. “It is shameful that in the midst of an infant formula shortage and labor shortage, we are forced to fight so hard for something as simple as the right to feed our babies the way we choose. We can do better. We must do better.”

Samantha Rudolph, the co-founder and CEO of Babyation, a company making discreet breast pumps, agrees: “One of the Senators that objected to the PUMP Act did so because it could be ‘burdensome to employers, especially those in the transportation industry.’ As a manufacturer of a breast pump that features the world’s smallest breast shields, I find this reasoning deeply frustrating. There are new pumps out there, including ours at Babyation, that allow pumping fully clothed. We don’t even require a lactation room or a private space to be used.”

What does the Senate failing to pass the PUMP Act mean for breastfeeding workers?

Well, to put it simply: the less breast milk is removed from the body, the less milk is produced. “For people who are breastfeeding young babies, if they don’t empty their breasts during the work day, their supply will drop, and their babies will have less breastmilk to consume,” explains Rudolph. Plus, people would have to pump on their own (unpaid) time, without a safe, private space to do so.

Why are breastfeeding rights still up for debate?

Breastfeeding in public, especially in the US, has been a contentious topic for quite some time. Something that is entirely natural is shamed or sexualized—because there’s nothing like the sight of a woman’s nipples to make people lose their shit. 

There are, of course, historical traumas like slavery and the erasure of Indigenous practices, and aggressive infant formula marketing, that has left its mark on how we as a public perceive breastfeeding. Plus, it’s only in the past decade that workplaces have begun to support  breastfeeding workers (let’s not forget that the Break Time law is only 12 years old).

“In many workplaces, it’s considered more normal for employees to take cigarette breaks than it is to take pumping breaks,” says Lebedevitch. Adds Rudolph: “Some stigma also comes from the perceived lack of face time at work. The same bosses who have held onto in-office presence with an iron grip are the ones who get uncomfortable with women being away from their desks while pumping. There’s this (incorrect) assumption that you can’t possibly be working if you’re not seen. It’s extra funny to me because no one is better at multitasking than moms, and we can absolutely pump while simultaneously doing other things—including working.”

What’s next?

For employers, “developing and implementing clear policies for family and medical leave and pumping during the work day is a critical first step, but its important to also nurture a culture of support,” explains Lebedevitch. “For example, the best pumping space and schedule for a particular employee likely depends on the location and nature of their work. This isn’t a burden on companies. It’s an opportunity for them to show how much they value their workers and want them to continue with their company.”

Another thing every single person can do? Call and email your Senators and let them know that you want them to support the PUMP Act, advises Lebedevitch. A Better Balance also has a state-by-state Knows Your Rights hub as well as a free, confidential legal helpline. You can also follow and support other breastfeeding advocates and thought leaders, like Reshma Saujani, Eve Rodsky, Daphne Delvaux or Blessing Adesiyan, adds Rudolph.

“This was a devastating loss but it’s not over yet,” says Lebedevitch. “The USBC and our partners aren’t going to quit fighting and parents shouldn’t give up hope. Negotiations between industry leaders and advocates have been going on for over a year. We must continue to demand that our policymakers find a solution.”

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