Women face breastfeeding challenges at work

Aug 4, 2014

There are laws protecting mothers who want to breastfeed at work, but some women say their employers aren’t doing enough. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says working mothers are less likely to initiate breastfeeding, and they tend to breastfeed for shorter periods of time. Illinois Public Radio’s Sean Powers reports on some of the challenges women face pumping breast milk on the job.

Zoe Keller gave birth to her son, Avery, in October. The 23-year-old from Urbana says 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.”

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’s worked there since high school, but even with that history, Keller says she initially didn’t feel comfortable talking to her managers about pumping breast milk on the clock, so she’d 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. And then I had to hunch over in this little corner because that’s the only place that the camera doesn’t see.”

POWERS: “There’s a camera in the room.”

KELLER: “Mhm.”

POWERS: “Is it like a security camera?”

KELLER: “Yeah, for when they count money and stuff like that.”

KELLER: “They initially said anything we can do to help, let us know, which I really appreciated and I know they meant it,  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’s in addition to the time it took to put up the window covers. She says she was physically comfortable, but even with the door locked she still felt exposed. During an 8 or 9 hour work day, there were times that the restaurant was so busy that she’d only be allowed to pump breast milk once or twice when realistically she says she should have been pumping 3-to-4 times a day. Keller recalls one exchange she had with a Panera manager.

“My manager basically said the same thing again: ‘We’ll have to wait.’ So, I got really upset, and I actually kind of snapped on him. Basically asked him why our staff can take two fifteen minute smoke breaks every day, and I can’t go fifteen minutes to go provide something for my child.”

Keller says because of shortened breast pumping schedule, she’d feel physically sore and sometimes leak milk, which was absorbed by nursing pads she’d wear. To make up for lost pumping time, she’d pump extra in the middle of the night. 

Panera Bread declined an interview request, but in an email statement, a spokesman says the company is committed to offering its associates, who are nursing, a private place and adequate break time. As for that camera in the managers’ office, Panera says it encourages employees to cover the camera for privacy. The spokesman adds that Panera follows all state and federal rules.

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, says the federal law doesn’t 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.”

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 says 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, 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. And when I’ve worked with them 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 explains to her clients about their rights in the workplace, and offers to talk to employers. Brenda Matthews says beyond having employers be more accommodating, she says there needs to be greater overall acceptance of breastfeeding moms.

“If we had a culture that supported breastfeeding, if all of our businesses supported their breastfeeding moms by nursing rooms or lactation support. 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 finds 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 in due in part due 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 says 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. 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 says 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, 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. The Co-Op’s General Manager, Jacqueline Hannah, says 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 to work being able to pump, but in some cases actually I think 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 says she offers her employees a large meeting room where they can privately pump. There’s also a small fridge where the milk can be stored. The Co-Op employs about a hundred people, and Hannah admits being this accommodating can be a challenge for small companies. But she says it’s still worth doing.

“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.”

…a tone breastfeeding advocates hope other businesses set.