There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Breastfeeding discrimination is a significant issue in the United States, impacting breastfeeding parents at work, in public spaces, and even on social media. A report published by the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law earlier this year found that breastfeeding discrimination in the workplace has cost thousands of women money, their jobs, and, in some cases, adversely impacted their health and the health of their children.
The discrimination is shocking, especially considering all of the benefits of breastfeeding for nursing women, which include reduced risk of developing type-2 diabetes, reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancers, increased metabolism, quicker postpartum healing, and for some, it can lead to healthier blood pressure levels down the road. The breastfeeding benefits for babies are plentiful, too, and include reduced risk of disease and illness, reduced risk of childhood obesity, enhanced cognitive function, and defense against certain types of cancers, including lymphoma and leukemia, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Still, the report mentioned above found that two-thirds of working mothers who filed breastfeeding discrimination cases ultimately lost their jobs, while nearly three-fourths suffered economic losses. Some of these women also reported sexual harassment, retaliation from managers, and unclean and unsafe lactation environments.
To help prepare nursing or pregnant parents for the realities of breastfeeding discrimination at work and in other public spaces, we’ve spoken with experts to compile a list of information and talking points that they can use in uncomfortable, and, in some instances, illegal situations. Here’s what you need to know:
There are laws in place to protect breastfeeding parents
The Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FSLA) Break Time for Nursing Mothers law “requires employers to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee has a need to express the milk.” This act also requires employers to provide breastfeeding parents with a clean lactation space.
Unfortunately, some employers don’t comply with this law, especially in male-dominated industries, such as law enforcement, according to the Center for WorkLife Law’s report. Additionally, not all work environments are legally obliged to comply under federal law. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees may argue that allowing break times for breastfeeding parents poses “undue hardships” within the company, and can thereby be exempt.
These loopholes and exceptions can have lasting consequences for parents and children, Jenn Jordan, Director of Mom & Baby at Aeroflow Breastpumps tells SheKnows.
“I think that some of the challenges are that the Fair Labor Standard Act covers some moms, it covers some of the high points, but there are absolutely some gaps in that bill,” Jordan says. “The Fair Labor Standard Act says ’employers provide reasonable break time,’ but as a mom, what’s reasonable for me and my pumping needs can be very different from another mother. I think every mom’s breastfeeding journey is unique, and I think it’s knowing that there are advocacy and bills that are introduced currently to help bridge that gap for workers [that helps ease the burden].”
One such bill is the Supporting Working Moms Act, which would extend breastfeeding protections for salaried employees, such as teachers and nurses, who are often excluded. But it will take more politicians fighting against breastfeeding discrimination to create a lasting, universal impact on both the federal and state levels. While the National Conference of State Legislatures notes that every state has laws to protect breastfeeding parents in public and private spaces, only 28 states have specific legislation that also safeguards breastfeeding at work.
Your employer may be unfamiliar with these laws
While you may think that every employer would be well-versed in federal and state laws, that’s not always the case, certified lactation consultant Kelly Glass tells SheKnows.
“Many employers don’t know the law,” she writes in an email. “Be prepared to confidently inform of your rights and advocate for yourself… One of the best ways to advocate for yourself is to start the conversation early. Tell your employer of your plans to pump and need for a private space to do so. And no, the bathroom is not an acceptable option.”
Jordan agrees that the burden of educating employers and managers may fall on a breastfeeding parent. Starting a conversation about breastfeeding can be uncomfortable, especially if you’re one of the only (or the only) nursing parents at the company. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to make the process easier, beginning with preparation. Before you return, print out a back-to-work breastfeeding plan (provided by Aeroflow Breastpumps) and list your specific needs, including how often you need to pump and where you would feel most comfortable. If your company doesn’t have a designated space, suggest to management or human resources that they create one (Jordan says a clean five-by-five area with reasonable seating space should suffice).
“I think a lot of times human resources is your safe place and your advocate at work,” Jordan says. “Just ask, ‘Does my workplace have a policy to support breastfeeding employees? Do we have a lactation room?'”
You can also remind your employer that there are health benefits associated with breastfeeding that can help the company in the long run.
“As a breastfeeding mother, I have lower risks of certain types of cancer. I have a lower risk of postpartum depression,” Jordan says. “My baby has a lower risk of diabetes, childhood obesity, ear infections, and stomach problems. My baby also has a stronger immune system and is going to be sick less often, which means me, as an employee, I’m going to be at work more frequently. I also lower the medical cost for my employer.”
Additionally, Jordan notes that allowing employees to breastfeed at work can increase morale, reduce turnover, and boost productivity. “My company accommodating me and giving me space and breaks I need [ensures] I am going to be the best advocate for that company,” she adds.
Women of color face higher rates of discrimination
Breastfeeding discrimination affects people of color and low-wage workers more than it impacts white workers, the Center for WorkLife Law’s report found; this is especially true for Black women.
“One of the things we don’t talk enough about is the public health crisis we’re facing in America. Black infants are more than twice as likely to die before their first birthday,” Glass tells SheKnows. “Black premature infants are three times more likely than white infants to suffer from necrotizing enterocolitis (a severe intestinal disease) and twice as likely to die from the condition. Studies show that breastfeeding helps reduce the occurrence of necrotizing enterocolitis. Unfortunately, Black women in America have the lowest breastfeeding initiation rates.”
Glass adds that two of the main reasons Black women have lower breastfeeding rates is because they don’t have access to medical resources and are often expected to return to work earlier than non-Black parents. Many of these women work hourly or lower-paying jobs and can’t afford to continue seeing an OB after giving birth, and more than 40% of working mothers go back to work “within 40 days” of delivery, NPR reports. One major problem is that the United States doesn’t provide paid paternal leave, an issue that some candidates are bringing to the forefront during their 2020 presidential campaigns.
Another sobering fact is that Black women have higher maternal mortality rates, regardless of their socio-economic standings. Doctors, employers, and politicians should be aware of these issues and should advocate more Black mothers by providing more affordable services and giving parents the time and resources they need to schedule postpartum appointments.
Companies and employers can initiate change
There are many things expectant or nursing parents can do to communicate their breastfeeding needs to their employers. However, the onus shouldn’t fall entirely on their (tired) shoulders. Companies and employers should also make changes to accommodate breastfeeding parents. The good news, Jordan says, is that employers can start small.
“As an employer, they’re always worried about, ‘Do I have space for this? How do I accommodate? What’s the expense behind it?’ I think as an employer, [you should know] this can be done very reasonably; it can be done on a budget,” Jordan says. “You can also slide a brief policy into your employee handbook… Having that in the handbook lets that expectant mother or new mother know that her employer recognizers her and has a space dedicated to her needs.”
Employers can also offer more flexible break times. If you’re worried about how your manager or HR may react to your requests, you can always bring in a note from your doctor outlining a schedule and defining your needs.
We still have a long way to go before we can eradicate breastfeeding discrimination in the United States. Hopefully, these tips and information will make initiating difficult conversations and advocating for your needs easier.