A number of working moms won an important right nearly 10 years ago with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which granted them the time and space to express milk for their nursing child while at work. But despite having such laws and company policies in place, a new study sponsored by Byram Healthcare has found that most working moms who pump or breastfeed still experience frustrations or embarrassment such as rude comments, being walked in on, or even being asked to move when expressing milk at work.
In a survey of 1,000 working mothers spread across the United States, a study commissioned by Byram Healthcare found that 66 percent of currently or recently nursing women with children under the age of 2 reported experiencing "a frustration or embarrassment" at work due to their need to pump or breastfeed. Of those women, 33 percent said they'd had someone walk in on them while they were expressing milk. And 26 percent said they'd had someone make a rude comment about their need to pump or breastfeed while 19 percent reported having been asked to move and pump or breastfeed elsewhere.
As part of the Affordable Care Act, employers are required to provide "reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child's birth," according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Employers are unable to limit or pre-schedule pump breaks, but must instead provide them "each time such employee has need to express the milk," according to the agency. The Department of Labor has also said employers are required to provide nursing employees with "a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public" that they can pump or nurse in.
However, it's important to note that, as HuffPost has pointed out, the law is only a requirement for companies with 50 or more workers. What's more, it covers only certain types of employees — specifically only those considered to be non-exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act — meaning many pumping or breastfeeding mothers aren't covered by the law. A study published in Women's Health Issues in 2016, for example, found that only 40 percent of working mothers had access to both the time and private space needed to pump or breastfeed at work.
What's more, Byram Healthcare found that many working mothers weren't fully aware of the protections afforded to them by the Affordable Care Act. Roughly 42 percent, for example, weren't aware they were entitled to the use of a room with a locking door.
"While the findings prove that access to breastfeeding equipment and support are crucial for moms returning to work, they also show we need to do more to make sure women's legal breastfeeding rights in the workplace are understood and upheld," Judy Manning, vice president of marketing for Byram Healthcare, tells Romper. She stressed the need for increasing awareness around the issue. "When women are made aware of their rights, they are empowered to ask for support and advocate for themselves, and all working mothers," she says.
While many of the working mothers surveyed as part of Byram Healthcare's study reported experiencing issues when pumping or breastfeeding at work, a number of them also said they'd experienced an unwanted reduction in their work hours or workload. In fact, 53 percent of surveyed women said their hours had been cut of their workload altered in ways they didn't ask for due to the fact that they were new moms.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found that moms who reported taking an unwanted cut in their workload were also more likely to find an unsupportive culture for breastfeeding or pumping at their work. Specifically the study found that 83 percent of working moms who saw their workloads cut were also more likely to have experienced at least one frustration related to pumping or breastfeeding at work.
What's more, previous studies have shown that while folks are generally supportive of new parents, a stigma against breastfeeding or pumping at work persists. A study published in 2018 in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, for example, found that one out of four coworkers possessed a moderate to strong stigma against pumping or breastfeeding at work, seeing such breaks as "unfair."
But, as the recent study commissioned by Byram Healthcare found, an overwhelming majority of working moms don't consider pumping breaks to be downtime. In fact, 96 percent of those surveyed said they multitask while pumping, combining the activity with eating lunch, responding to emails, conducting conference calls, or drawing up to-do lists.
While the Affordable Care Act has improved some working moms' ability to express milk while at work, it doesn't extend to all employees and thus leaves a number of women still forced to pump in their cars, in dirty bathrooms, or crowded storage closets. In an effort to strengthen and expand pumping protections for working mothers, however, legislators have introduced the Supporting Working Moms Act (SWMA), which would create a national policy protecting women's need to pump or breastfeed at work. You can support and advocate for working mothers by talking to your elected officials about supporting the bill and ensuring all women have a clean and safe place to pump.