When we had our first child, my wife worked full time at a hardware store. Because Mel had a C-section, rather than a vaginal birth, she was granted two extra weeks of maternity leave. During those six weeks I watched her struggle to get our son to latch. She got up in the night, her stitches still red and sore, and fed our baby. I watched her spend time figuring out how to pump so she could make milk for our son once she went back to work. And once she did go back, far before her body or mind was ready, she was told she had two options for pumping — the communal break room where all her coworkers could watch as they ate their tuna fish sandwiches, or a nasty public toilet stall.
Most working mothers might find this story on par with their working spaces.
Not having an available lactation room forced my wife to switch to formula. Now, keep in mind that this is not an article about breast milk versus formula. This is about the serious lack of available pumping rooms for working mothers, and the fact that many employers simply are not willing to invest in these spaces.
There is, in fact, a federal provision in the Affordable Care Act that amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that states that employers are required to provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.” Employers with fewer than 50 employees are not subject to the FLSA break time requirement if the employer can demonstrate that compliance with the provision would impose an undue hardship, which is assessed on a case-by-case basis.
But many companies are finding creative ways around it. I’ve heard stories of determined mothers pumping in janitorial spaces, storage rooms, and closets. None of it is conducive to the simple, quiet space a working mother needs to be able to feed her child while still working.
There is serious lack of available pumping rooms for working mothers, and many employers simply are not willing to invest in these spaces.
So what should a lactation room look like? That’s a good question, because obviously a lot of employers need to know. Most mothers are usually left with the odds and ends of any building. They are forced to find some secluded unused space where no one wants to be, rather than a supportive room that makes them feel like an actual functioning, valued part of a staff.
Liz York, senior advisor for buildings and facilities for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, has been standing up for new moms in the workforce for more than a decade. She told Parents Magazine that her experience returning to work with twins caused her to write the lactation room guidelines for the American Institutes of Architects Best Practice. Here are some of the basics included in her guidelines:
– There should be one room per 100 female employees.
– A 50-square-foot room can meet accessibility guidelines if it accommodates a 5-foot turning radius.
– Minimum amenities include a tabletop, chair, sink, and refrigerator.
– The tabletop or working surface should be at least 24 inches deep to accommodate bottles, pumping equipment, and laptops.
– There should be a supportive and adjustable task chair with casters, as opposed to a “cushy chair,” which York says allows a mom to “get work and pumping done.”
– Essentials include electrical outlets for the pump and laptop, a microwave for sterilizing pump equipment, a deep sink for washing bottles and pump parts, and a refrigerator for milk storage. Under-counter fridges can help to conserve floor space, but they must be situated as to not encroach on knee space beneath work areas.
I don’t want to speak for everyone, but nothing listed above is all that extravagant. Most women are just asking for a quiet and comfortable space that isn’t a toilet stall to pump. They don’t want to compete with cleaning supplies for space.
But what’s more important is the fact that if companies honestly care about working mothers, retention, and creating a diverse work space, they wouldn’t look at them as they return to work and say, “I know you need to perform this basic and essential function during the day to provide food for your baby, but I don’t really want to invest in giving you that space, so here’s the key to the dusty, unorganized, and bug infested storage room.”
Investing in new mothers is also financially smart. “When employers provide a pumping room that promotes relaxation, it leads to longer-term peace of mind for a new mom. She begins to believe that she will be able to simultaneously return to her work life and provide for her child,” York told Parents. “That employer support helps to build loyalty among employees.” York estimates the cost of building a pumping room to be anywhere from $5-$15,000, while estimates show the cost of replacing a mid-level employee is $15,000.
I’ve heard stories of determined mothers pumping in bathrooms, storage rooms, and closets. None of it is conducive to the simple, quiet space a working mother needs to be able to feed her child while still working.
The day my wife finally gave up on breastfeeding because she didn’t have a reasonable space, she cried. She felt like she was stuck between helping to support our family, and feeding our child in the simplest and most natural way. None of it made her feel like a valued employee returning to work. Instead it made her feel like a burden.
It’s not only financially smart to invest in working mothers; it is the humane thing to do. I mean, honestly, lactation rooms need to be as normal in a work space as toilets and broom closets. It shouldn’t be seen as an extra expense, but rather something employers anticipate as a normal part of providing space for employees. Because it is.