A few years ago, I was pregnant with my first child. It was an exciting new experience that also carried some scary firsts for me. Not the scary firsts you might have in mind – the risk of miscarriage, labor pain, or other physical discomfort. In fact, the first thing I had real fear for was telling my boss that I was pregnant.
It’s not that my boss was a bad person in any regard – rather, it was the fear of the unknown. Especially, when sharing something so personal and life changing. How would he react? I had no idea.
My boss at the time had the perfect reaction. He was supportive, kind, and wonderful. Frankly, between him and other wonderful professional women that I was privileged to work with, the experience of being pregnant in the workplace was easy and a non-issue. I was able to unofficially have a “mentor” of sorts. A been there, done that mother who was pregnant with her second child (due a few months before me) and someone whose career I respected greatly. I was fortunate enough to watch her and follow her lead. It was because of this fellow professional, that I also discovered that my company had “mother’s rooms” or nursing rooms at the corporate headquarters, where I was located.
Pregnancy and maternity leave was simple, in the professional sense. I was grateful to be so fortunate. Upon return to work, it was far less challenging than I had thought it would be. I used the mother’s rooms and mostly had no issue with providing enough nourishment for my child. This was greatly aided by a flexible schedule, which also allowed me to work from home two days a week. When you are a nursing mother, this is key to success. The production of breast milk is easily affected by any change in stress, environment, and nourishment.
My misfortune came three months after returning to work. A group had failed to achieve their set goals and was being reabsorbed into the corporation. My area was being shifted to the management of the failed organization and with the org shift, my office space was also relocated.
As no mother’s room existed at this location (but is required by federal law to provide), I began the necessary steps of working with management to find a space.
Where did I end up? The server room.
Did I mention it was dirty, cramped, and had an opaque glass door? And that I had to share it with my male colleagues who used it for its purpose – as a server and storage room? Oh – and that right outside the door – a few feet away – was our main conference room – also with opaque glass? Meaning, if I was in the room actively pumping, you could most definitely hear what I was doing and have some visibility into the room.
I also did not have my own key. I was given the pleasure of explaining to my male colleagues (who I had just met) why I needed to use the room. “Why, yes, I am using the room to sit with both of my breasts hanging out fully exposed while being milked like a cow. What do you use the room for?” This is not an awkward conversation at all. And of course, there was the issue of needing the room when it was being used. Staying on a pumping schedule is important – especially, when you are already subject to a meeting schedule and those 20 minute breaks are extremely precious. Those 20 minute breaks sustain life – literally.
This was one of my first real forays into the challenge that professional women encounter when they also happen to be mothers. Whereas men who are married and have children are judged to be the most competent, women who are married and have children are perceived to be the least. There is no factual basis for this perception. Women are a valuable asset to the workforce.
I did not speak up enough until I was in the process of leaving. I learned enough with that experience that I won’t make that mistake again. Women (and supporting men) must support the effort to make the workplace a truly family friendly environment. This pregnancy, I am not making the same mistakes.
My advice to women and mothers everywhere is to speak up! You will be astounded as to how many women relate to you and/or have experienced the same challenges. We can make much more progress when we are vocal than when we remain silent.
In case you are interested, here are the mandates according to United States Federal Law (as found in Section 4207 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Health Care Reform).
I. Employers Must Provide Breaks for Nursing Mothers
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA) amends Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by adding the requirement that employers provide “reasonable break time for nursing mothers.” Under Section 4207 of PPACA, employers must make available the following: (1) reasonable breaks for employees to express breast milk; (2) a location free from intrusion in which to take those breaks.
A. Employers Must Provide Reasonable Breaks
Although Section 4207 does not quantify what is a reasonable length of time for a nursing mother break, it explicitly states that employers are not required to compensate employees for these breaks if they are taken during “work time.” Employers are not granted discretion to regulate the frequency with which employees take breaks to express milk; rather, nursing mothers are entitled to take reasonable breaks “each time such employee has need.” Employees may take these breaks until the nursing child is one year old.
B. Breaks Must be in a Private Location
Employers must provide a private place where employees can go to express milk. This location must be “shielded from view” and “free from intrusion from coworkers or the public.” Section 4207 expressly forbids the use of bathrooms as venues for nursing mother breaks.
C. Small Employer Exception
Not all employers are subject to the new break requirements of Section 4207. Employers with less than 50 employees, who would experience “undue hardship” in the course of providing nursing mother breaks, are exempt. Undue hardship is determined by weighing the “significant difficulty or expense” of providing breaks against the “size, financial resources, nature, or structure” of the business.
II. Section 4207 Does Not Preempt State Law That is More “Employee Friendly”
If state law provides “greater protections to employees” than the protections in Section 4207, employers must adhere to the more expansive provisions. Seventeen states currently have laws that require employers to provide lactation breaks.
While many have provisions that are similar to Section 4207, no state exactly mirrors federal law. In fact, many states include one or more provisions that are broader than Section 4207. Examples of state law provisions that expand employee protection include: allowing mothers to continue taking breaks until the nursing child is anywhere from 18 months to three years old; requiring employers to make reasonable efforts to provide lactation rooms close to an employee’s work area; requiring that employers either make reasonable efforts to provide refrigeration for breast milk or, in some employment settings, allow employees to bring their own refrigeration devices to work; providing break rooms with electrical outlets so employees can plug in breast pumps; and allowing employees who take unpaid breaks to make up the time by staying later to work. If an employer’s state law includes greater employee protections such as these, the more protective provisions govern.