Katie Woody and her son, Oliver (Courtesy of Katie Woody)

California’s Working Moms Get Stronger Support for Workplace Lactation

Back Kaiser Health News Nov 25, 2019 By Brian Krans, California Healthline

Katie Woody’s firstborn, Oliver, struggled from birth to latch onto her breast, so she had little choice but to pump her milk and feed it to him from a bottle.

After a three-month maternity leave, Woody returned to her job as a sous-chef for a meal delivery service in Los Angeles, expecting to have access to the sole office in the rented building to pump her breast milk — an agreement she had made with the building manager. But a male shift supervisor who occupied the office would not let her use it.

Instead, she pumped in her car, covering the windows as best she could. “But the stress of the situation was too much,” she said, so she stopped giving her son breast milk a few months after her return to work. That upset her, because Oliver, now 2, had health problems, and she wanted to give him the best nutrition possible.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives. But, as in Woody’s case, many mothers return to work well before that and often have trouble finding a suitable place to pump and store their breast milk.

A law signed last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom seeks to rectify that problem. It requires that working mothers be given a more dignified space to pump and proper equipment for storing the milk.

Authored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), Senate Bill 142 requires employers to provide mothers a secure and private space close to their workstation with a chair and a table or shelf to hold their pumping equipment, as well as access to electricity. Running water and a refrigerator or cooler for their milk must be located close to their workstations.

“Too many new mothers are unable to express milk at work or are forced to do so in a restroom or other unsuitable space,” Wiener said in a statement. The lack of a proper lactation space, research shows, is particularly pronounced among lower-income workers and women of color.

The new law requires employers to notify employees of their right to pump their breast milk at work, including the time and space provided for it — and it mandates that any violations of those rights be communicated to the California Labor Commissioner’s Office.

The Affordable Care Act requires employers across the U.S. to give women time and a space — other than a bathroom — to pump their breast milk. But it does not mandate specifics.

SB 142 is not Wiener’s first attempt to beef up workplace lactation requirements in California. Last year, he authored a similar bill, but then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it. Brown did sign AB-1976, which lacked the specific requirements contained in the Wiener bill.

In 2017, San Francisco passed a first-in-the-nation ordinance on workplace lactation, to which SB 142 bears a close resemblance.

Arissa Palmer, executive director of Breastfeed LA — one of many breastfeeding rights groups that supported the new state law — said it provides “minimum standards” for safe and clean lactation spaces across California. That’s important, she said, because employers around the state have varying ideas about what such spaces should look like.

Failure to conform to the new specifications will open employers to fines and further liability, Palmer said, adding: “The law that protects a woman from retaliation is extremely important.”

One Friday this month, Palmer said, she fielded complaints from women who had been harassed about their pumping breaks. One was fired, and another quit her job.

On the other hand, Palmer said, many employers are empathetic and want to accommodate new mothers — but limited space can make it hard for small businesses operating on thin margins to do so.

The new law exempts businesses with fewer than 50 employees that can prove accommodating lactating mothers would create an undue hardship.

One solution for employers with limited space is free-standing, portable lactation rooms. Palmer cited the case of a fieldworker whose employers provided her a tent, with portable electricity, manufactured by Mamava, a Burlington, Vt., company that designs lactation spaces for airports and workplaces.

Sascha Mayer, Mamava’s CEO, said she came up with the idea for her company while working as an executive in a design studio. She said she was able to have privacy simply by closing the door to her office, “but so many women I’ve met don’t have that privilege.”

Lactation laws vary around the country, but even with minimum federal standards, Mayer said, “millions of employers are probably out of compliance.”

Opponents of the new California law — including statewide associations representing retailers, restaurants and health care providers — argued before its passage that it would be “quite burdensome for employers” and expose them to “potential litigation traps.” They said AB-1976 already had required costly changes regarding lactation.

Proponents of the new law cite research from the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee showing that more than half of mothers return to the workforce before their children are 1 year old. In California, half of mothers work during pregnancy, and most of them say they plan to return to work while they are still breastfeeding, according to the state’s Center for Family Health (CFH).

And barriers at work, the proponents say, can cause those women to stop breastfeeding before their child is 6 months old.

Data from the California Department of Public Health shows a large disparity in access to breastfeeding support among California’s working mothers, breaking down along racial, ethnic and economic lines.

Wealthier white women reported receiving the most lactation support from their employers, while black and Latina mothers reported the least support. And women at or below the poverty line were far less likely than others to work for employers who accommodated their lactation needs.

Still, the CFH reports that since 2011 the percentage of all women who reported receiving workplace breastfeeding support increased from just over half to two-thirds.

Carissa Rosenthal, 32, recently returned to her job in public relations after giving birth to a baby boy 3½ months ago.

Her co-working office in San Diego has a “mothers’ lounge” with a door that locks, a comfortable chair, a shelf, a lamp, a fridge and a sink down the hall in the kitchen, she said.

“It’s definitely a perk and a selling point for a shared office,” Rosenthal said over the phone while pumping in the room one recent Thursday afternoon. “I definitely feel it’s an important thing for it to be comfortable, and not just stuffed into a janitor’s closet.”

Woody, who is pregnant again, said she wasn’t aware of the new requirements under SB 142, but the potential lactation accommodations in her new workplace seem a little better than at the last one.

“There’s a changing room, so I’ll probably be able to pump in there,” she said.

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.