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Pumping at work: Not so easy for all women

Categories: Balancing Act, Parenting & Family, Working Women Issues


I was completely blown away when I read recently about a ruling by an Ohio court that the state’s law that protects pregnant women from workplace discrimination does not protect them from being punished for breastfeeding at work during unauthorized times. At the center of the case was a woman who was fired by her company for pumping at work during an unauthorized break. Her son was 5-month old at the time.

(Many other moms and bloggers are reacting to this — check out Leah’s awesome post over at Working (on) Motherhood.)

I am not a lawyer and won’t go into dissecting the actual case. I am sure the core of the case revolved around the fact that this woman took an unauthorized break and what she did during it has nothing to do with it — she broke the rules and there were implications. But I can’t help but think that in this case, the employer should have shown some more flexibility. After all, it’s not like she went shopping during the break.

The issue that this raises in my mind is the fact that while the government strongly promotes the benefits of breastfeeding and advocates for women to breastfeed as long as possible, we don’t have federal regulation that sets standards that companies have to follow when it comes to new moms. For example, new moms could be allotted more regular breaks during the day, so that if they are choosing to pump at work they have plenty of opportunities to do it. Or perhaps new moms can be allowed to take several unplanned breaks during the day so they could pump. Whatever it is, I am fairly certain that the government can do more to actually help moms who want to pump at work do it and the fact that it’s not the case makes me really angry.

It feels odd to write this and to suggest more government regulation in this area. I am generally not someone who loves more government or for the government to interfere with the way private enterprises run their business. But I feel strongly that we need more government regulation and standards when it comes to new moms, for everything from longer maternity leaves to making sure that moms who want to pump at work can do it without the fear of getting fired or reprimanded. Sure, there are some great companies who want to have happy employees and they take care of their new moms. I’ve worked for several of those. But there are also many that don’t care as much and women who work there, particularly if they are not in management positions, suffer the consequences.

OK, I’ll come off my soapbox now, but I’d like to know: Do you think new working moms who choose to pump at work should be given certain priviledges, such as extra breaks? Or should they be treated like any other employees?

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4 comments so far...

  • Women and men should both be able to negotiate for whatever breaks make sense for both the employee and employer, taking into account the other employees. Other than that, no, I don’t think there should be any laws requiring any special benefits for women, mothers, whatever.

    Breastfeeding is not essential. Sure, it’s got lots of positives. So does baby wearing, meditating for a half hour every morning and afternoon, and napping at 1pm. But none of these is necessary. There is an abundance of studies that prove that formula feeding is a valid choice, and moms who choose not to breastfeed are quite vociferous about this position. There is also the option to breast-feed outside of work hours, without pumping during work. It’s not like babies are going to starve and die if moms aren’t able to pump their breasts at all hours of the day and night. In fact, there are many moms and dads who have kids with actual health problems that interfere with their careers, and there’s no government remedy for that. How about adoptive parents who have to take off work to live overseas to satisfy foreign adoption laws (or just to be there for their kids while they bond?) I could think of so many cases where “special consideration / flexibility” would make a greater impact on the child/family than breast pumping breaks. Obviously we can’t burden employers infinitely with all of this. There has to be a line, and I agree with the court that taking unauthorized (or “unplanned” as you suggest) breaks to breastfeed crosses the line.

    Many of us have jobs where it really doesn’t matter when we take our breaks, as long as the time we take isn’t excessive and the work gets done. But lots of women work in situations where the timing of breaks is extremely important. Such as my past jobs in food service, nursing care, child care, factory assembly lines, etc. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that extra / unplanned / unauthorized breaks would be a significant burden on many employers.

    It is not the responsibility of employers to make accommodations for the lifestyle choices of employees. And it’s not the responsibility of government to subsidize choices (or force employers to subsidize them). By arguing that the choice to breastfeed deserves special treatment, you are promoting reverse discrimination. Accepting reverse discrimination is exactly the same as (and promotes) discrimination.

    That said, I’m sure it makes sense for many employers to offer this type of flexibility as a perk, to attract the cream of the crop of female workers. But it’s up to each employer to come to that decision. And it’s up to women to bring it up and prioritize it when choosing a job/career. Nobody is forcing women to work for employers that have strict break times.

    SKL  |  September 10th, 2009 at 8:10 pm

  • When it comes to new moms, yes i think they should be given some flexibility when it comes to pumping the milk etc. The moms on the other hand should not be taking undue advantage of this. If they pump 4 times a day for 15 minutes each, they should volunteer working an extra hour to compensate for the time. Its only fair.
    When it comes to company’s tolerance. If a person has a broken foot or some medical condition, they are more than willing to adjust the times and locations of the meeting to adjust with the person. It is not very different from mothers who need these breaks. though not a medical condition, it is a prt of life and temporary. There should be a good understanding between the employee and the manager to find middle ground.
    There are companies which have a dedicated room for the mothers to pump in, some companies offer breast feeding guidance and other women/ mother friendly groups. Some companies on the other hand could not care less.
    The government norms etc is where this comes into play and would make it standardised for the new mothers

    GNSD  |  September 11th, 2009 at 9:11 am

  • Thank you for bringing awareness to this issue, it’s only through talking about these issues and bringing them to light that change will occur. We are in an era of transition since the perception of nursing in our society is still not well accepted for a variety of reasons.

    Yes, I do think nursing moms should have every opportunity to pump while at work. Many moms chose to stay at home, as I did, during those intense months of having a newborn. For those who continue to go to work and continue to nurse we should support them every step of the way.
    Nursing is not always easy. It can bring much stress, pressure - to nurse and many feeding complications.
    We know nursing is the best form of nutrition for our babies - why wouldn’t we support those that chose to do so?
    Companies should be aware that nursing babies are less likely to have colds which means moms will not be missing work.
    Many moms also have reported that they feel closer to their newborn while nursing. This bonding ritual helps moms to feel less guilty while at work.
    In response to the comment regarding breastfeeding being essential, it is essential to pump if you are nursing. I support moms in whatever they chose - bottle or breast. However, in order to continue breastfeeding you must pump in the early stages. This is not needed for a long period of time where you need to leave your desk every 2 hours. It is a short period of time and is well worth the effort. If you have never nursed before you may not realize - having a “let down” means you need to go pump you milk. And if you don’t you can end up with blocked milk ducts, pain and flu like symptoms.

    Yes, moms should follow and respect the company break times and work within them. In a perfect world the arrangements could be made upfront. However, in some situations discussing your pump is not the most comfortable conversation piece for the employer or employee. And, many women would prefer to keep it to themselves since they are not well supported.

    Melissa Gurry  |  September 11th, 2009 at 2:35 pm

  • I work somewhere where working moms get preferential treatment and I resent it. I had a personal issue that would have benefited from special treatment and I got shut down when I asked the boss, but probably wouldn’t have if my issue was kid related.

    Rather than making laws to help women pump at work I’d prefer laws that provide parents a reasonable length maternity leave, the concession being that ok, we’ll give you a reasonable mat leave but when you come back to work it’s time to work.

    Anon  |  September 11th, 2009 at 3:28 pm