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

Tom Stemberg, co-founder of the Staples office supply chain, complained in a recent interview that the Affordable Care Act (known by opponents as “Obamacare”) will cost jobs by mandating that employers set up “lactation chambers.”

This statement came on the same day as a court ruling in Houston that firing an employee because she asked for a private place to pump breast milk wasn’t sex discrimination under federal law, because lactation is not “a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.”

“Lactation chambers”?? Breastfeeding not related to pregnancy or childbirth?? All of this makes me feel as if we are living in an alternate, sci-fi universe, where men breastfeed, and pumping takes place in some kind of exotic, state-of-the art diving bell.

The provision Stemberg is complaining about merely requires that employers give eligible employees who are breastfeeding reasonable unpaid breaks and a private place, other than a bathroom, to use a breast pump — something that many employers already voluntarily do.

Actually, supporting breastfeeding moms saves employers money by improving infant health, thus reducing absenteeism and increasing productivity. It also improves employee retention, and avoids costs of replacing and retraining women who might otherwise leave the workforce. As the Houston case shows, failure to support breastfeeding is not cost-neutral: women lose their jobs because of it.

This is also an issue of fairness. For too long, the workplace has been designed around the needs of employees who do not — and cannot — get pregnant or lactate: namely, men. As a result, women are too often forced into a situation where they have to choose between their families’ well-being and their jobs. Some women who face barriers to pumping at work delay rejoining the workforce so they can continue to breastfeed, but most can’t afford that choice, and have to give up what they believe is the healthiest option for their babies in order to continue supporting their families financially.

We can’t achieve full equality for women in employment until our workplace policies recognize that women, as well as men, are a valuable part of the workforce throughout their reproductive lives. If Staples is committed to a fair and diverse workplace, it must issue an immediate apology to its female employees and to working women everywhere.

Tell Stermberg to put that in his “lactation chamber” and pump it!

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