Returning to work after having a new baby can pose real barriers for women who are breastfeeding. Consider the following real-life examples:
Not everyone who has given birth wants to breastfeed (and many women have difficulties doing so, for a variety of reasons). But for those women who are breastfeeding, incidents like these can force them to choose between giving up breastfeeding and taking time off from work. For most women, taking time off is not a realistic option, either because their employers won't grant them anything beyond the 12 weeks of unpaid leave mandated by federal law or because they couldn't afford to take time off even if it were available. (Shockingly, the U.S. is one of only two industrialized countries with no nationwide mandate for paid parental leave— the other, Australia, offers a full year of unpaid, job-protected leave).
A little-known provision of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. the health care reform law) offers some hope. Under the new law, which applies to all workers subject to overtime-pay requirements of federal law, employers are required to provide reasonable unpaid breaks and a private space to eligible employees who wish to pump breast milk on the job for up to a year after the baby is born. (For more information on what the law requires and who it covers, click here).
This provision is a win not only for public health, as breastfeeding is associated with improved outcomes for moms and babies, but also for women's equality. Workplace policies and practices must appropriately reflect that pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding are a part of many women's lives. This law represents an important step toward helping women to balance their work and family obligations.
Now we need to make sure women see meaningful results in their workplaces. Yesterday, the ACLU submitted comments to the U.S. Department of Labor on how this provision of the new health care law should be enforced. We argue that women need to be allowed to pump on a schedule that makes sense for the individual needs of their babies, and in a location that is safe, comfortable, private, and does not harm their dignity. For example, employers should not be permitted to force women to use spaces like utility closets that would not otherwise be considered suitable for employee work or leisure.
Employers should be encouraged to offer the benefits of the law to all women, not just those subject to overtime requirements, and for as long as women choose to breastfeed, not just for a year. And we think Congress should expand the law to make those protections mandatory.
While these recommendations may seem like simple common sense, the examples above show that we still have a long way to go. This new provision of the Affordable Care Act will help get us there. The next stop: paid family leave!