Despite Protections, Breastfeeding Mothers Face Challenges At Work
By Sean Powers
There are laws protecting mothers who want to breastfeed at work, but some women say their employers are not doing enough.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, working mothers are less likely to initiate breastfeeding, and they tend to breastfeed for shorter periods of time.
Zoe Keller, 23, of Urbana gave birth to her son, Avery, in October. Keller said she knew before Avery was born that she wanted to breastfeed, even after she returned to work.
“It didn’t really occur to me until half way through the pregnancy, but as soon as the question came up, I didn’t think twice about it,” Keller said.
Zoe Keller with her son, Avery. (Courtesy of Zoe Keller)
A couple months after giving birth, Keller returned to her job at Panera Bread. She worked the drive through, made food, and did other jobs she was assigned. She has worked there since high school, but even with that history, Keller said she initially didn’t feel comfortable talking to her managers about pumping breast milk on the clock.
So, she would do it when she had time in a bathroom stall. But after a couple of weeks, she brought it up and was told she could use the managers’ office. It had a door she could close, but there were a number of windows.
“I would have to like cover up the windows with aprons because I couldn’t find anything else, and that was like a five minute process in itself,” Keller said. “And then I had to hunch over in this little corner because that’s the only place that the camera doesn’t see.”
Keller explained that there was a security camera in the room. She said her bosses were very supportive of her need to breastfeeding while at work.
“They initially said anything we can do to help, let us know, which I really appreciated and I know they meant it," she said. "But they’re also running a business and that conflicted when we were short staffed or ticket times were too high or whatever the reason was.”
In the managers’ office, Keller would have 15 minutes to breastfeed. That was in addition to the time it took to put up the window covers. She said she was physically comfortable, but even with the door locked she still felt exposed.
During an eight or nine hour work day, there were times that the restaurant was so busy that she would only be allowed to pump breast milk once or twice when realistically she said she should have been pumping three-to-four times a day. Keller recalled one exchange she had with a Panera manager.
“My manager basically said the same thing again: ‘We’ll have to wait,’” she said. “So, I got really upset, and I actually kind of snapped on him. Basically asked him why our staff can take two 15 minute smoke breaks every day, and I can’t go 15 minutes to go provide something for my child.”
Keller explained that because she was limited in her breast pumping schedule, she would feel physically sore and sometimes leak milk, which was absorbed by nursing pads she would wear. To make up for lost pumping time, she would pump extra in the middle of the night.
Panera Bread declined an interview request, but in an email statement, a spokesman said the company is committed to offering its associates, who are nursing, a private place and adequate break time.
“Often, given space limitations, the most private location in our bakery-cafes is the manager’s office,” spokesman Jonathan Yohannan said. “We do allow and encourage associates to cover the camera in the manager’s office during this time to ensure privacy.”
“We follow all state and federal laws,” Yohannan added.
The federal law for pumping breast milk in the workplace applies to all employers, but a small business with fewer than 50 employees is eligible to apply for exemption if they can demonstrate or can prove financial hardship.
Brenda Matthews, who co-chairs the state’s breastfeeding task force, said the federal law does not trump Illinois’ law since the state law is stricter.
“It says that businesses with over five employees have to make a reasonable accommodation for a mom to be able to pump near her work site that is not a bathroom or a bathroom stall,” Matthews explained.
In Illinois, an employer is not required to provide break time if it would unduly disrupt the operations of the business.
Karima Isberg is a breastfeeding peer counselor with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, and she works with businesses to designate them as breastfeeding friendly. She said she has heard about employers telling employees to pump milk in a bathroom.
“For certain reasons it does make sense because there’s a sink in there and potentially there might be some table that you can put your pump on or whatever and even a chair could be included,” Isberg said. “But we also know that bathrooms are really dirty places and we wouldn’t be going in there to eat our meals. So yeah, certainly it seems to be what mothers are being told.
When I’ve worked with them,” Isberg added. “They’ve also felt like, ‘Well, I don’t really feel like I can confront my employer because basically if I lose this job, it’s going to be hard to find another job.’”
In those situations, Isberg explained to her clients about their rights in the workplace, and offered to talk to employers. Matthews said beyond having employers be more accommodating, there needs to be greater overall acceptance of breastfeeding.
“If we had a culture that supported breastfeeding, if our…all of our businesses supported their breastfeeding moms by nursing rooms or lactation support,” Matthews said. “If we looked at anywhere where she has a barrier, if she’s embarrassed to go to the pool with her baby, you know, we need to work on those particular pieces.”
Breastfeeding rates tend to vary by ethnicity and income level.
A 2011 state report found black women in Illinois are less likely to start breastfeeding than white, Hispanic, and Asian women. Rates drop even more for low income women. According to the Illinois Breastfeeding Blueprint, the decline for all women is due in part to new moms going back to work.
Kim Bugg is with the national group Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere, which looks at addressing breastfeeding disparities among women of color, particularly in the African American community. Bugg said the bulk of the people she helps work in the service industry.
“If or when African American women sort of make it to the top, it’s very well known in our community that in order for us to be there, we have to be three times better than anybody else,” she said. “So, it is very difficult for African American attorneys, and dentists, and physicians, who I work with a lot, also to maintain lactation, but particularly those in service industry.”
For small businesses, finding the time to be accommodating to breastfeeding moms and run a business can be a balancing act.
Anthony Pomonis is the managing partner of Merry Ann’s Diner, which has locations in Champaign-Urbana and Normal. He said so far, none of his employees have asked for time to pump breast milk.
“To be honest with you, I hadn’t thought about it once until your call for the interview,” he said. “But since I received the message to call back, I have thought about it and I think it’s something that’s important and it’s necessary and it’s something that we should address in the near term because I would imagine that this is something that could crop up or occur."
Meanwhile, other businesses, like Urbana’s Common Ground Food Co-Op, have started thinking about this issue, and have incorporated language into their employee handbook about breastfeeding. At the Co-Op, all employees are required to read the manual. Jacqueline Hannah, the general manager of the Co-Op, said there are also small stickers and a plaque in the store indicating to customers and employees that breastfeeding is accepted there.
“We do have some members of the staff who are pregnant right now who I think probably would have thought of breastfeeding when they got back to work, being able to pump,” Hannah said. “But in some cases actually I think it is educating mothers about their options and their rights that they just know and see it being utilized in a workplace. Even if they move on from this workplace and have a child later, they know I have these rights and these are reasonable expectations from employers.”
Hannah added that she offers her employees a large meeting room where they can privately pump. There is also a small fridge where the milk can be stored. The Co-Op employs about a hundred people, and Hannah admitted being this accommodating can be a challenge for small companies. But she said it’s still worth doing.
The frige at the Common Ground Food Co-Op that is used to store breast milk. (Sean Powers/WILL)
“There are women who are excellent employees of your organization who will come back to work because they not only know they’ll be accommodated for this one need, but because they are respected as an employee who is valuable,” she said.
That is tone breastfeeding advocates hope other businesses set.