When Amanda Glenn returned to work after having her first baby, she knew she wanted to continue to breastfeed. But she was nervous about having the pump-at-work conversation with her male boss.
"I was honestly pretty apprehensive," says Glenn, who works in marketing at Fredrick Community College in Maryland. "Breastfeeding is something that is private."
She talked with the college's human resources department first, letting them know she'd need to take breaks during the day to express milk. In the end, her boss was understanding, and Glenn says she's glad she did it.
But many women who breastfeed don't realize they have the right to time and a private place to nurse at work. And for those who do, it can be difficult or embarrassing to bring up the topic, especially with a male supervisor.
Yet awareness about the cause is growing, with a call to action from Surgeon General Regina Benjamin last month to remove barriers that prevent women from breastfeeding. And now, as we approach the year anniversary of the passage of the federal law that requires employers to provide pumping accommodations in the workplace, the Labor Department is asking women, employers, and anyone with a stake in the issue for help clarifying the specifics of those requirements.
"A lot of women really want to keep breastfeeding when they go back to work, and they don't even realize that it could be a possibility or that asking their employer to support them isn't an unreasonable demand," says Kirsten Berggren, who breastfed her son while working at a software company and now blogs at WorkAndPump.com. "The new federal law gives women a lot more backing to say, 'This is what I need.'"
The law, called Break Time for Nursing Mothers, requires companies with at least 50 employees to provide reasonable time and a private space—not a bathroom—to pump milk until the baby is a year old. It does not spell out how much time is reasonable, nor whether that private space should include, for example, a lock on the door or a refrigerator to store milk. That's why the Labor Department is developing guidelines for the law, asking for feedback from the public before February 22.
Because of how the law was passed last March, as an amendment under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it applies only to employees who are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Generally, that means hourly workers and not salaried workers, although the actual distinction is fuzzier than that. But while the law doesn't protect everyone, it sends the message that employers should take breastfeeding at work seriously.
"It's our hope that employers, once they've gone through the effort to make this available to the non-exempt [from the Fair Labor Standards Act] employees, that they would also simply make it available to their exempt employees," says Nancy Leppink, acting deputy administrator of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, which is responsible for enforcing the law.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends women breastfeed exclusively until their baby is six months old, saying it boosts the child's immune system, among other health benefits. But only a small percentage of mothers follow that suggestion, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About three of every four mothers breastfeed their child at birth, the Centers report, but by six months, the number drops to 43 percent, with only 13 percent of mothers breastfeeding exclusively.
Employers are not required to compensate employees for pump breaks unless they offer unpaid breaks for other reasons, such as lunch.
In addition to suggestions about what kind of accommodation and time employers should provide, the Labor Department is looking for creative solutions for companies that don't have offices—with employees who work, for example, as bus drivers or in shopping malls. As of the end of last week, the department had received about 850 comments, according to Leppink.
Some breastfeeding advocates suggest a workplace's lactation room simply include a lock on the door and an electrical outlet, while others look for a sink and refrigerator. Most importantly, the space has to be clean, says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder of MomsRising, a nonprofit organization that advocates for family-friendly policies in the workplace. "[It has to be] a place where you'd want food to be handled," she says.
If you're not sure how to ask for breastfeeding accommodations at work, here are some tips for broaching the subject with your boss:
Check your state law first. Some states provide greater protection for breastfeeding mothers, such as requiring companies to offer break time beyond one year after the child's birth. Those greater protections override the federal law.
Ask while you're pregnant, not when you return from maternity leave. This gives your employer time to figure out the best way to accommodate you, says Berggren of WorkAndPump. That works out for both parties; your boss won't be pressed for time, and you'll have what you need when you return to work.
Write an e-mail before discussing it in person. Cathy Carothers, president of the International Lactation Consultant Association, who helps businesses create breastfeeding-friendly environments, says employers often appreciate a written request from an employee before talking about her needs during a face-to-face meeting. That prevents catching the boss off-guard, which is particularly helpful when the boss or employee might be uncomfortable with the topic.
Ask nicely rather than demanding your rights. "Employers don't like people threatening them with the law," Carothers says. "So I'd encouraged the mother not to say, 'It's the law, you have to do this for me.'" Instead, try something like, "I'd like to talk to you about some ways to work together to make this work," she says. "That approach gets women much farther."
Consider the greater good. You're not the only woman who needs to pump at work, so remember that making the request might help others, too. "Each time that somebody asks, we're opening the door for even more moms and more children to be able to do the same thing," says Rowe-Finkbeiner of MomsRising.
Explain how your ability to breastfeed could benefit the business. Show your boss what the company gains from making it feasible for you to pump during the day. Supporters of the nursing-at-work law say it decreases the company's healthcare costs and cuts down on mothers' sick days because breastfed babies tend to be healthier than bottle-fed infants. It can also improve employee loyalty and decrease turnover because workers appreciate being able to balance their work responsibilities with family life.
Show that you're flexible. If your employer is concerned about decreased productivity, offer to come in early or stay late to make up the time, Carothers says. Make it clear that this will help you continue to be a great employee.
If need be, reference the law. If you've tried the strategies above and your employer won't budge, maybe it's time to mention the law. Make sure you understand how it applies to you so you can accurately explain your right to pump at work.
Don't forget to claim your tax break. Breast pumps qualify as a healthcare expense, the Internal Revenue Service ruled recently. That means you can use pre-tax money from your flexible health spending account to cover your pump and supplies.