Working Moms Are Being Forced to Pump Breast Milk in Dirty Closets and Bathrooms—Though It's Illegal

Moms are too often relegated to unsanitary places to pump, despite laws requiring employers to provide decent accommodations.

(Photo: Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images)

Jun 3, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

For the past five months, New York City private school teacher and new mom Tiffany has pumped breast milk three times a day at work for her nursing infant son. Usually, she does this in a small closet filled with dusty files, board games, and supplies because no other room is available.

She makes sure the electric pump’s clunky plastic funnels, suctioned onto her breasts, stay on, loudly drawing out milk for her almost eight-month-old. The pump, she says, sounds like “a wheezing car engine.”

“It’s cramped, and it feels precarious because it’s a closet, and you don’t want anyone walking in,” said Tiffany, whose identity has been verified by TakePart but who is using an alias to protect her from employer retaliation. “I know a lot of people who have to pump in a bathroom, and children’s bathrooms, which is gross. Other teachers in my school do it. It’s like eating dinner off a toilet. There’s shame associated with pumping because it’s kept so private.”

Yet being made to pump in a bathroom or another unsanitary, publicly accessible environment at work because of a supposed lack of space is illegal, according to federal laws (and some state laws) that require employers to make a temporary room or private space available.

But shame over asking for proper facilities for pumping has trumped the law for many working mothers. For starters, breast pumps—noisy, outdated, vacuum-based contraptions similar to the version created by Einar Egnell in 1956—are already embarrassing but necessary contraptions for extracting and storing nutritious breast milk for babies while moms are away from home.

According to the federal Affordable Care Act and Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are required to provide reasonable break times for an employee to pump breast milk for her nursing child for one year after birth and in “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public.”

In New York, if a lactation room is unavailable, a fully enclosed cubicle not accessible to the public should be provided, and restrooms are banned.

California law dictates that adequate pumping facilities should include a clean, private place with a chair and an electrical outlet, as well as access to running water and refrigerated storage.

Last week the California State Assembly passed a bill, proposed by Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal, requiring California’s 10 largest airports to have breast milk pumping rooms. If signed into law, the bill would take effect in 2016.

“Some employers have embraced these laws and can’t do enough to accommodate their employees. Even the Pentagon has beautiful lactation rooms all over their buildings, and then you get the other companies, like schools, that make it so difficult for these mothers,” said Marsha Walker, a registered nurse and executive director of the nonprofit National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy.

Walker, a lactation consultant since 1976, said employers that set aside decent places to pump save money by keeping employees at work, and they recognize the benefits of breast-feeding. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 Breastfeeding Report Card says 77 percent of new moms in the United States breast-feed, with breast milk contributing to healthy weight gain.

Changing attitudes toward pumping, making the process more acceptable at work and comfortable for working moms, also means changing breast pumps altogether.

Electric pumps average $250 and will reach 5.63 million units sold by 2015, according to a 2013 report by research firm Global Industry Analysts. A recent New York Times story calling for pumps that are sleeker, quieter, and more effective inspired 20 experts to convene at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab on May 21 for the first-ever “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” Hackathon. They discussed solutions such as universal battery packs to make pumps more portable and knit cozies to make them warmer. One participant, Susan Thompson, has created a quiet, rounded, hands-free prototype called the Gala Pump, which can fit into a bra and uses a massage mechanism that mimics baby hands inducing breast milk.

“Breast pumps make you feel as if you’re a cow or a piece of machinery,” says Tiffany. “I really wish they were silent. That would be the one biggest thing. No matter where you’re doing it, if the walls are thin, everyone can hear what you’re doing. The noise makes it more public.”