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By Galen Sherwin, Staff Attorney, ACLU Women's Rights Project

Returning to work after having a new baby can pose real barriers for women who are breastfeeding. Consider the following real-life examples:

  • When one employee returned from maternity leave, her employer criticized her for needing to express breast milk (or "pump") as frequently as she did because she thought her baby should be eating more solid food, told her she had to stop pumping when her baby turned a year old, and fired her when she asserted her rights.
  • A woman who worked for a local county agency and whose job required her to drive between different locations throughout the day was prohibited from pumping in her unmarked, county-issued car — even if she covered up and completely screened the inside from public view. She was left with no option but to pump in restaurant bathrooms along her route.
  • When one woman asked for a private place to pump, her employer told her the only available space was a room used to store computer servers; the room was kept so cold in order to prevent the equipment from overheating that the woman had to wear her hat, scarf, gloves, and winter coat the entire time she was pumping.

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. On Tuesday, 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!

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