Every time Meagan Cavanaugh tries to pump breast milk, she braces herself for the sound of a coworker’s knock on the door. Her breastfeeding room is the same as the conference room at the national non-profit she works for. She has to sign up for a time slot to use the room, like everyone else in the office, to reserve pumping breaks for the next day.
“Two of three times I’m there, people are trying to get in, completely disregarding that it’s reserved,” Cavanaugh said. “To pump successfully you need to be mentally relaxed and it’s challenging when people are always knocking.”
The Federal health care law, or Obamacare, includes a provision that will allow women in Cavanaugh’s position to have access to private pumping rooms. The legislation requires employers to provide a room other than a bathroom for women to pump milk and ample break times to use the room.
Instead of forcing employers to recognize the health needs of mothers and babies, the law has had little effect on labor practices. Employers are either unaware of the law or fail to meet minimal standards, such as privacy and cleanliness. The federal government has offered state breastfeeding coalitions the funding needed to reach out to businesses and inform them of the new law’s requirements.
Breastfeeding became important to the health care law when it became labeled a preventative health measure for both the mother and baby. Marsha Walker, lactation consultant and registered nurse, said breastfeeding is vital for babies because breast milk boosts the baby’s immune system to prevent sickness.
“It’s extremely important to prevent leukemia, cancer and diabetes. It’s not just to prevent ear infections. It’s protection from both common and serious illnesses,” Walker said.
Breastfeeding also preserves the mother’s health, Walker said, because the chance reproductive cancers and cardiac problems are more likely to occur when the body does not express breast milk.
If better enforced, federal law could level the playing field for mothers, especially low-income women who do not always have the option of staying home after-baby. When the rate of breastfeeding among women aged 19 to 35 was broken down among class, race and education, a 2007 survey by the Centers for Disease Control found clear disparities.
Black women, women with only a high school degree or less and women receiving WIC, a nutritional program for low-income women, infants and children, breast-fed less than other groups.
Felina Rakowski Gallagher, owner of The Upper Breast Side in Manhattan, a breastfeeding consultation service, said she knows many working mothers resort to strange methods in order to pump milk, such as pumping milk from inside an electrical closet.
“I don’t know what these employers are thinking,” she said. “They’re hiring women of childbearing age and then they think the cost of maternity leave and all of these other benefits are too high.”
Babies’ n’ Business LLC helps companies set up lactation rooms, purchase pumps and provide supportive services. A registered nurse and lactation consultant at the company, Jane Balkam Ph.D., said businesses with as many as 4,000 employees need to be persuaded to give extra benefits.
“Once companies know that it’s a win-win situation it’s not hard to persuade them to make that effort. But there is a lack of understanding in the business community about why they need to do it and why it is necessary,” Balkam said.
Balkam said federal agencies account for a recent uptick in the number of employers requesting services from Babies’ n’ Business. She said federal agencies that are made aware of the new Obamacare provision are quick to adopt it but many large private sector companies are not aware the law exists.
The law is a challenge for small businesses as well said Laurel Pickering, spokesperson for the Northeast Business Group on Health centered in Manhattan.
“For small businesses, it’s just a matter of space. We are a small business here and we have 30 to 35 people in the office. Until we redid the office, that was a struggle for us. Now we have room for a breastfeeding privacy room,” Pickering said.
Pisticci, an Italian restaurant on La Salle Street in Manhattan, employs 33 people. Its manager, Elizabeth Powell, was not aware the regulation existed but she said she does keep a spare office room, which she said employees are free to use for breastfeeding.
“It’s never been an issue but if needed we would provide it,” Powell said.
Breastfeeding mothers have often found their employers were willing to convert a room into a breastfeeding room but the room did not always meet their needs due to a lack of privacy or cleanliness.
Working mothers find conditions are much less ideal because their employer offers scant breaks and unclean places to pump milk.
An assistant editor who works at a major television network said she routinely uses co-worker’s offices when they are out or finds an empty neglected office inhabited by mice. She did not want to be named for fear of angering her employer.
“There isn’t one place that is the pumping room for me. I use one room most of the time but last week I found mouse droppings in there. No one should have to work with that,” she said.
The 37 year-old assistant editor said it is difficult to work in a male-dominated industry with mostly fathers who do not face the same parenting responsibilities.
“It’s hard to be a woman in this business. It’s a hard situation for moms because even my union doesn’t know how to deal with it. It’s just society in general that people think, ‘You just have to deal with it. It’s not my pregnancy so its not my problem,’” she said.
Cassandra Adams, 23, gave birth to her child a month ago and plans to return to work as a Walgreens beauty advisor in Grand Island, New York. She said she knows she will have a sterile place to pump breast milk but she will be expected to pump during the lunch and break times she had before she gave birth. Adams said she is not sure she will be able to continue pumping if she can’t balance the break times she has with the pace of her job.
Though many new mothers have experienced a lack of breaks and clean rooms in which to pump, there are a few exceptions. Lisa Mou, a strategy group manager, works at American Express, a company well known by breastfeeding advocates as one of a few companies that provide outstanding benefits to new mothers.
The company pays for breastfeeding seminars at nursing schools, offers support groups, and gives employees 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. Once employees return, the company helps them get in touch with lactation consultants. Mou also benefits from the basic breaks and breastfeeding rooms required by law.
Mou said she was touched by the company’s effort to reach out to new mothers because she never expected the level of support she received. The company allows her to take work home if she is feeling tired or overwhelmed.
“I had a hard time with my hours and I thought it would be a difficult situation to explain it to them but people were very supportive of it,” Mou said.
*I wrote this story last spring as I was attending graduate school and did not find the time to pitch it to as many magazines as I would have liked. However, I think it's an important problem facing working mothers, and it should be brought to people's attention, even in a limited space such as my personal blog or a feminist community forum.