Breastfeeding and work: How Obamacare got the breastpumps out of the bathroom stall

Posted By on Sep 19, 2012 | 0 comments


I’ve been writing about employment law in my day job for 8 years now. I thought I’d seen it all. But just recently I stumbled upon a legal matter I hadn’t come across before: A woman was suing over breastfeeding.

This made me happy.

Not that I was happy about how this woman was treated. Rather, I was happy that she had a clear legal path for pursuing her right to pump breast milk at work in a dignified way.

The key word here: Dignified.

Out of the stall

Love it or hate it, part of the so-called “Obamacare” includes new rules for pumping breastmilk at work. Specifically, any employer with more than 50 employees has to provide a private space — other than a bathroom — for nursing mothers to pump breastmilk during the workday for up to one year after giving birth.

Employers also have to provide reasonable unpaid breaks (stopped some of you mid-complaint, didn’t I?) to allow mothers to do this.

Caught on film

In the case I’m writing about now, a woman who worked at a convenience store was told that she could pump breastmilk in the store’s office. All was well and good until the store was bought by another company and a surveillance camera was installed in the office. The poor woman noticed this while she was sitting in the office with her breasts exposed.

She complained. The company waited a while before getting back to her and then told her that she could cover the camera lens with a bag. She said that wasn’t good enough, because the camera made her nervous and interfered with her milk production and therefore, her ability to feed her baby.

Not long after that, she started getting in trouble for minor things like not restocking the hot dogs (for real). She was fired.

Now she’s suing, saying that she was fired for complaining about the camera.

Stagefright!

I imagine that there are some people out there going, “What a whiner! The camera was covered! How can she say affected her breastmilk?”

Let’s look at the other side.

Breastfeeding can be extremely taxing. If you’re tired, stressed, anxious, etc., those boobies can’t quite keep up production.

Your body gets on a pretty tight schedule. If you don’t get those boobs emptied at very specific intervals — which is invidivual to each woman, as well as ever changing — you can end up in serious pain. Worse, you can develop infections.

I worked from home when I had my kids. I had the unbelievable luxury of nursing my kids in my own home, in privacy. But even then, I had to make plans for going to the store or to other people’s houses — and it all revolved around when I’d have to whip the boobs out and if I’d have any privacy while doing so.

Because while I may be a hippy at heart, I didn’t exactly relish the idea of nursing in public. I know it’s natural and I have no problem if other people do it, but I didn’t want to.

Call me Bessie

Breastpumping is another experience entirely. I didn’t have to pump at work, but I did have to do it at home to get my milk supply up.

Pumping is downright degrading. It is. I’m pretty sure there’s no way to do it without feeling like Old Bessie the Cow hooked up to the milking machine.

But if you have to go back to work someplace that’s away from your child, you have to do it or your body will stop producing milk.

There’s no discreet way to pump milk. The machine is rhythmic and loud. You usually need both boobs out. You have to hook up suction thingamabobs onto your nipples. The suction thingies are connected to long tubes that go into a machine that produces suction. They suck the milk out — and while they’re doing so, you can actually watch your nipples get pulled into the suction cones and see the milk accumulate, drop by drop, into collection bottles.

So is that talk about nipples and suction and milk uncomfortable? Little TMI?

“If only I could type with my elbows …”

Well, imagine having to do all that at work.

It’s a pretty intimate thing, if you ask me.

I know many woman who have had to try to pump milk in bathroom stalls on the job. Reread that description above. There are a lot of components to using an electric breast pump. It’s like an entire chemistry set. I can’t imagine having to set all that up while balancing on a public toilet.

Plus, remember that we’re talking about breastmilk here. It’s baby food. Would you want someone preparing your food in a public restroom? Germ city, peeps.

This law is one reason Obamacare is good.

Is this law possibly inconvenient for employers? I can see how they might find it annoying if someone ducks out to pump at an important time. But I’d like to think that most women will try to time their breaks so they’re as unobtrusive as possible.

But it’s also good for employers. Why? Breastfed babies have higher immunities. Babies who get sick less mean less sick time off for mommies.

Plus, you can’t discount the fact that mothers who are actually allowed to do this if it’s important to them will really appreciate it. They’ll have higher morale. They’ll be more loyal.

These things provide real benefits for employers.

The flipside? If a woman thinks her job is interfering with her ability to provide breastmilk to her child, she’s going to be one disgruntled pain in her boss’s ass.

It’s a start

As I mentioned, following trends in employment law is my job. I am floored over and over again at how courts stumble over how to treat pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood.

There are very few laws that specifically protect any of these things. For example, if a pregnant woman is doing a physically strenuous job, there’s no clear-cut way to handle getting her job modified. She often has to prove that a pregnancy complication is disabling her in some way. Why? Because you have to show that you’re disabled under the ADA to get job accommodations — and pregnancy, on its own, isn’t considered a disability.

But let’s be real: It’s not a good idea for a lady who has a bun in the oven to be lifting things or working around certain chemicals.

This arrangement also sucks for the company. Why? If the woman gets hurt on the job or her baby has a birth defect that can be tied to her job, the company is screwed because she can sue them. But … if the company changes the woman’s job for her own protection and she views it as a demotion, she can sue for discrimination.

Clearly, this setup doesn’t work for anyone.

Let’s embrace the working momma

The thing is, women are in the workforce. Mothers. Prospective mothers. We get pregnant. (And by “we” I mean “you,” since this baby factory is closed.) Some of us breastfeed.

It’s time to stop trying to lump childbearing into the category of “disability” and call it what it is: pregnancy. Let’s see some laws that specifically address pregnancy. It will be good for mothers and for companies.

For now, ladies, let’s raise those breastpumps in solidarity. It’s time to come out of the bathroom stall.

_____

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