To date, millions of American parents have been impacted by the baby formula shortage but breastfeeding parents largely remain unpanicked. Social media has exploded with posts taking note of this and suggesting that this benefit might spur reluctant parents to embrace breastfeeding. But this advice fails to acknowledge that breastfeeding without supplementing with formula is not an option available to all women. Many workplaces lack sufficient accommodations for nursing mother employees. These employees need more accessible spaces for pumping breast milk and a more flexible break time.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) now includes a provision that mandates that organizations must provide a private (non-bathroom) place for lactating employees to pump breast milk and to allow them reasonable break time. Yet, my research on workplace accommodations for breastfeeding women demonstrates that workplace milk expression is still difficult for many lactating employees.
Many women are not covered by this law because they are salaried employees or fall into other categories of exempted workers. I think of my daughter’s first-grade teacher who worked hard to combine breastfeeding and returning to the classroom after her maternity leave; she was not covered by this federal law, nor are other similar young women in classrooms across the country.
Although many states have laws about workplace lactation accommodations that cover more categories of employees than the federal legislation does, employers might still be excused from complying if the necessary accommodations creates a hardship for the organization.
Moreover, among those workplaces that do try to accommodate lactating workers – and most do try, at least officially, to follow the law’s mandate – many organizations’ efforts fall short of effective accommodations.
The lactating employee needs both adequate time and accessible space. She needs a place to express milk that is private, clean, and accessible. She also needs sufficient time to travel to that place, assemble her pumping apparatus, relax sufficiently to so her body can release milk, and engage in actually expressing the milk.
Some women’s accommodations are make-shift spaces in dirty store rooms. Others’ might be clean, bright, welcoming lactation lounges, but located far from the woman’s work space so that she spends much of her break traveling to and from the lactation room, with little breaktime remaining. Other women might have outdoor or traveling jobs – think of that woman you passed on your way to work engaged in a city road-repair team.
Other lactating workers with access to quality, accessible lactation rooms may still lack sufficient time to pump. Consider the hospital nurse who only needs to walk to the next unit a few floors away to locate a pumping room, but can’t leave her beds unsupervised for this period without placing a substantial burden on her co-workers, already working understaffed, to oversee her patients while she is away. Or imagine the store supervisor who worries as soon as she steps away to pump milk, her sales people will need her to override computer mismarkings or provide authorizations for certain purchases or returns.
For all these reasons, many breastfeeding parents cannot feed their children without including formula. To the extent that this decision goes against their aspirations, it illustrates how both society and the workplace are structured to place nearly all responsibility of parenting on individual women with little support to make their parenting easier and their difficult combinations of duties possible.
The FDA, formula makers, and others have mobilized to create or release more formula to parents. These exertions should be followed by similarly great efforts to create more supportive workplace structures and environments. Critics who might chastise formula-using parents for reliance on non-breast milk, might shift their focus to why formula is often necessary for many women and, instead, criticize those social structures that remove the option of breastfeeding for many working women.