Among 41 nations, the U.S. is the only country that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents. So, as long as we accept this structural agreement where parents and their infants/young children are separated for extended periods, it is imperative — both biologically and morally — that we make workplace accommodations for lactating people, explains U.S. Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) Deputy Director Amelia Psmythe Seger.
Accommodating lactating employees requires only simple arrangements, and decades of experience show that it is possible to support the expression of breastmilk in a wide range of workplaces.
In 1998, Minnesota enacted the first state workplace lactation accommodation law, and since then, different states have been working on various approaches. Among these, in 2005 and 2007, members of the Nursing Mothers Counsel of Oregon, including Psmythe Seger and other passionate advocates, alongside then State Representative Jeff Merkley, worked to pass legislation that requires workplace accommodations for nursing mothers in Oregon.
Then in 2010, when Merkley was a brand new U.S. Senator, he proposed the Break Time for Nursing Mothers provision, which passed unanimously out of a bipartisan committee.
USBC Senior Advocacy & Communications Manager Cheryl Lebedevitch says that it’s been rewarding to work on legislation built from the community level and up to a national framework.
The Break Time provision was the first time federal law addressed breastfeeding workers.
Tempering the celebration, however, Psmythe Seger recalls that because of the placement of the provision within the Fair Labor Standards Act, the legislation unintentionally excluded nearly 9 million workers, including teachers and many registered nurses.
“It was pretty devastating,” she recalls. “What we thought was a giant step forward was going to be inadequate, so we went right back to work.”
Currently, USBC is working with partners at ACLU, A Better Balance, Center for WorkLife Law, and passionate advocates across the country to pass the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections (PUMP) For Nursing Mothers Act. This bipartisan bill would close this coverage gap and strengthen enforcement of the Break Time law.
Each year, Lebedevitch says, advocates build and strengthen congressional relationships while listening to parents and employers about what is working and what could be improved. These insights have allowed us to strengthen the bill language and associated advocacy materials each congressional session.
All of that work is paying off. The bill has been advanced by the House and Senate committees, clearing it for a vote. Now, USBC urges advocates to raise their voices so that Congressional leaders will bring the bill to the House and Senate floor for a vote. Getting involved and showing support is easy, thanks to USBC online tools and suggestions.
Both Psmythe Seger and Lebedevitch emphasize the importance of storytelling to move this legislation forward.
“Stories from families are so powerful,” Lebedevitch begins. “They can make the difference between a bill becoming a law or not.”
Local breastfeeding coalitions can make a big impact with their own story tools, Psmythe Seger goes on to point out. Coalitions provide insights and compelling connections for legislators about the constituents they serve, she explains. Parents’ and employers’ stories alike help demonstrate where and how lactation accommodations are working.
In all of their iterations, workplace laws were intended to have flexibility built into them, Psmythe Seger says. The Office on Women’s Health provides an online resource that breaks down potential lactation space solutions in all industry sectors.
Lactation accommodation can look like a screen partition set up in a warehouse, a pop-up tent in a field, an empty cubicle space in a library, and even butcher paper taped up over a window for privacy.
There are also businesses that go above and beyond existing laws, knowing well that there is a strong Business Case for Breastfeeding.
For instance, Psmythe Seger describes a company that provides employees with a stipend to bring along their infant and child care provider while traveling for work or covers the cost of shipping milk back home.
Lebedevitch points out that Breastfeeding-Friendly awards, often offered through health departments and breastfeeding coalitions, can be a great way to lift up breastfeeding support.
“The awards can really dig in and see who is doing this right and for [individuals or other businesses] to find examples,” she says.
The Missouri Breastfeeding Coalition’s Breastfeeding Friendly Worksite Program, the Michigan Breastfeeding Network’s tool pages list Breastfeeding Anytime- Anywhere sites, and the South Carolina Program for Infant/Toddler Care’s (SCPITC) Breastfeeding Friendly Child Care designation program are all great examples of lifting up the businesses supporting families.
Because the challenges families face are ever-evolving, Lebedevitch explains that break time for nursing parents is just one piece of the larger puzzle.
“PUMP is a big priority for us,” she begins. “But it’s not the only priority.”
The lactation field has identified several important policy priorities for this congressional session, including federal funding for breastfeeding, infant and young child feeding in emergencies, paid family and medical leave, access to lactation support and supplies, and maternity care practices. Together, these policy changes can create the critically needed structures that support an equitable and healthy nation.
“Infants who have optimal nutrition and warm and healthy attachments do better across the lifespan, and everyone has a stake in that,” Psmythe Seger concludes. “The connection and harmony within families ultimately become communities that are mutually supportive and [influences] public health outcomes.”