Only 2 Cities In The U.S. Legally Protect Breastfeeding Moms In The Workplace

by Cassandra Stone
Originally Published: 
Image via Getty/Steve Debenport

Breastfeeding moms deserve more protection under the law at the city-level

The lack of support breastfeeding moms receive from their employers when they go back to work is a huge national issue. Results from a recent study show that only two of the 151 largest cities in the U.S. have laws in place to protect breastfeeding moms.

Two. Out of 151.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends six months of exclusive breastfeeding for all able, nursing moms — but only 22% of breastfeeding moms do it that long. Perhaps the findings of this study contribute to why.

Federal law, as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, requires that employers offer “reasonable break time” and a place that’s not the bathroom for moms to pump their milk. That’s…it. That’s all the protection new, nursing moms receive at work under federal law. And that only extends to hourly employees at companies with 50 or more employees and annual company earnings of $50,000 or more. Salaried employees aren’t covered.

Diane Spatz, a perinatal nursing and nutrition professor in the School of Nursing and lactation program director at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and her team of six University of Pennsylvania nursing students examined 151 of the largest cities across the US and found that only New York City and Philadelphia have laws that protect nursing women. She says finding information about breastfeeding protections at a city-level wasn’t easy to do.

“I would say, ‘If I were a breastfeeding mother living in your city and wanted to go back to work, are there any protections for me if I need to take a break four hours into my 12-hour shift to pump and store milk?'” Elizabeth Froh, part of the research team, explains. Froh says she and the rest of the team were told “no” nearly 100% of the time. After a year of research, only two cities had some version of local laws established to protect nursing mothers who return to work outside the home.

Here’s why this is a serious national issue. Currently, 56 percent of the workforce in the U.S. is women. The federal law is lax at best, and extremely limiting. “Right now in the U.S., if a mom wants to be a breastfeeding mom and a working breastfeeding mom, really all of the onus is on her to figure it out,” Spatz says. That makes this a social justice issue as well as a public health issue.

When I returned to work after maternity leave at the high-level advertising agency where I worked at the time, I was offered a filthy, toilet-right-there-in-the-open bathroom intended for accessible use only in which to pump my milk. I didn’t know then that this bathroom was the unofficial Dude Bro Shit Space, and that I was upsetting all the Dude Bros at the agency by infringing on their preferred crapper. I suppose the main crapper with six stalls in it was just too far away?

So they passive-aggressively continued to poop in the bathroom even after they were told not to by HR, and I had to sit in a dingy poop room to pump my baby’s milk. A lot of lovely female coworkers offered me support, but a lot of assholes talked shit about me, an emotional new mom returning to work, because they were offended by pumping in general. I was laid off 60 days after returning and in no way do I feel it was a coincidence. There are zero protections in place for situations like this in the city of Pittsburgh and the no-bathroom thing was completely ignored by my former company.

Researchers in the study say they want city-level laws to cover all working women, regardless of what field they’re in, how many hours per week they work, how often they get paid, and what size company employs them. Language in the legislation would also seek more than just time and a non-bathroom space. This can help more nursing moms achieve their personal breastfeeding goals and feel supported at work.

“The stronger the city-level legislation becomes across the board, the more cities that do it, the easier it is for the state to pass one,” Froh says. “If more states do it, it becomes that much easier for a federal law to pass. This is really where a grassroots effort could make an impactful difference.”

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