The REAL Risk of Returning to Work as a Mom

July 24, 2019

California Breastfeeding Coalition

When Sarah had her third daughter, she thought she had it all covered for a seamless transition back to work after maternity leave. She had child care figured out, schedules coordinated and had already investigated her office’s lactation facilities.

With all bases covered, she looked forward to getting back to work. But a lot can happen when a woman is out of the office, caring for her newborn.

Lactation Location Matters

When Sarah returned to work, she found the site’s lactation room had been moved. She’d now have to walk 10 minutes to access the company’s designated space for pumping. Traveling 5 minutes there, 5 minutes back and the time required to empty her breasts, and each pumping session would now take at least 30-40 minutes.

Lactation Location Availability

When Sarah went out on maternity leave, the company’s single lactation room seemed sufficient. It met the minimum standards required by law and its close proximity to her office gave her confidence. After returning to work and overcoming the surprise of finding the room moved, another – more difficult – challenge became glaringly obvious:

Her company only had one lactation room to meet the needs of ALL EMPLOYEES. It never occurred to Sarah to investigate the NUMBER of lactation rooms at her workplace. She was just focused on finding the closest one. And it seems, her employer – focused on the minimum standards required by law – never thought to consider how its compliance choices would affect nursing moms either.

Sarah now found herself in a sticky situation. She’d plan her day around pumping sessions, take that 10-minute walk and hope the whole time to find the room available. Sometimes it was, and sometimes it wasn’t. After several surprise run-ins with other moms, Sarah learned that every nursing mom had a key to the room and there was no system in place to determine when it was and wasn’t occupied, except to go to the room to find out.

(In)Human Resources

Knowing lactation accommodation is covered by law in the state of California, Sarah reported these issues to her Human Resources department. Clearly, nobody had thought through the practical challenges facing nursing employees.

“There’s a point where you can’t do both,” Sarah said. “You can’t be successful at your job and express milk successfully without certain things in place.”

Unfortunately, Sarah was told the problem was hers to solve. The best advice HR could offer was for the nursing moms to come together and figure out a room reservation schedule among themselves. With every mom in the same position as Sarah, struggling to manage deadlines, meeting schedules and conference calls during the work day, Sarah explained to HR that it was too much to expect them to coordinate pumping schedules, too.

“At the end of the day, you’re trying to feed your newborn, and the fact that no one cares is heartbreaking,” she said.

HR referred Sarah to Facilities to discuss the problem of having a single lactation room for all nursing employees. Facilities, though, was equally unhelpful. After circling back to check the status of her complaint, Sarah was told she was “stressing out” the team with her demands.

“I felt like they were trying to get me to leave by not providing accommodation,” she recalled.

A Losing Lactation Battle

During this time, Sarah’s milk supply started to drop. Between inconsistent access to the lactation room, the travel time needed to get to and from the lactation room and the stress of trying to find a better solution to benefit all nursing moms, Sarah stopped producing milk for her baby.

“When you are denied something that feels like a basic right – that’s the part that’s most frustrating,” she said.

Just six weeks after returning to work, Sarah found herself unable to breastfeed her baby. She had no milk to give.

SB 142: A Policy for Moms Like Sarah

Sarah’s story is heartbreaking, but it’s not unique. Every year, untold numbers of women go through similar experiences trying to juggle the demands of serving their employers well while honoring the needs of their bodies to produce food vital to the nourishment of their infants. The women feel forced to choose between being “good” employees and “good” moms.

Senate Bill 142, introduced by Bay Area Sen. Scott Weiner, aims to change all of that and to put the burden of workplace lactation accommodation where it should be: on the shoulders of the employer. Current law states employers must make “reasonable effort” to accommodate the needs of lactating moms. But as Sarah story illustrates, effort isn’t enough.

SB 142 expands California’s current lactation accommodation law by specifying that lactation rooms must be located within “close proximity” of an employee’s assigned work space and have mechanisms in place so that women can pump free from distraction or interruption. If passed, SB 142 would mandate employers to have lactation policies, lactation request forms and best-practice guidelines accessible to both employees and employers.

Had SB 142 been in place when Sarah returned to work, she might still be a nursing mom. She would have definitely had a different experience as a working mom.

“Lactation is actually a medical condition that requires accommodation,” Sarah said. “Without proper accommodation, women aren’t being treated equally.”

Sarah recently joined California Breastfeeding Coalition Executive Director Robbie Gonzalez-Dow at the state Capitol to testify on behalf of SB 142 before the Assembly Committee on Business and Professions.

Next Steps for SB 142

Sarah’s testimony moved the committee to approve the bill, but the fight isn’t over yet. The current version of the bill is available online, and you can track its status by registering with the California Legislative Information center. For more information on how to navigate your lactation accommodation needs, visit the U.S. Office on Women’s Health.

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