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Breastpumping moms gain new rights — but does Minnesota's new ‘Women’s Security’ law have enough teeth?

Breastfeeding booths at the Pine County Fair.
Courtesy of Rebecca Fanning
Breastfeeding booths at the Pine County Fair.

"I work at Mcdonalds, and have no idea how i'm supposed to pump at work."

That was the title of a forum post by Minnesota Reddit user ziggyllama two months ago — or a month before Governor Dayton signed the Women's Economic Security Act

Ziggyllama continued [sic]: "I'm just really worried, i love breastfeeding, and i don't want to give my baby formula. I really don't want my milk supply to get low just because people want to order some burgers and the managers aren't letting me pump. We also don't have a single area i can think of to pump. No where has a door! The office is out in the open, and the break room. I could go into the linnen closet, but i don't think it has a plug in."

Any new mother who’s returned to work and continued nursing — no matter where she falls on the professional spectrum — will sympathize with the poster's anguish and stress. Even the best available workplace situations are filled with stories of breastpumping embarrassment and frustration.

Minnesota has long compelled employers to make provisions for employees to pump in the workplace; the 2010 Affordable Care Act contained similar federal requirements.

But WESA goes further, adding that the area supplied for expressing breast milk be "shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public and that includes access to an electrical outlet." 

Furthermore, the new act expands the old statute to ban employers — meaning "a person or entity that employs one or more employees" — from retaliating against an employee who asserts her rights.

Still, a law that looks great on politicians' resumes might leave working mothers wanting. Its requirements sound specific and reasonable, there is one giant flaw.

"Very few states, including Minnesota, provide for penalties for non-compliance — which weakens these kinds of statutes since there’s not much risk to failing to comply," said Marcia McCoy, treasurer of the Minnesota Breastfeeding Coalition.

A Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) representative said WESA has expanded the agency's authority. In the past, DLI responded to workplace lactation law complaints with an "inform-and-educate process," but the expanded law will allow the agency to "investigate and issue orders to comply."

DLI says it has had "a few complaints in the past" — but since there is no specific designation for complaints about expressing breast milk, it cannot report any specific number that it has addressed. The agency said it would add such a designation by July 1.

As a last resort for "willful or repeated violations," DLI may assess a civil penalty for each violation. The max penalty is $1,000. 

Nursing numbers rise

If you want to start an ugly fight that raises the specters of old-fashioned gender politics and misogyny, just bring up the subject of making room for pumping breast milk in the workplace.

A January 2014 NBC News story on the subject generated over 1,500 comments, many of which are stomach-churning. (For example: "and this is why women get paid less. I for one will not be hiring any women in their prime childbearing years. You can be a mother or you can be a worker. You cannot give 100% to both. At best you can half-ass them both to a degree.")

Converging social trends suggest clashes between breastfeeding moms and bigoted or space-challenged employers are going to grow.

In 2010, 77 percent of U.S. newborns began breastfeeding. At six months, the percentage drops to 49; at 12 months, 27 percent — but both figures are up by double-digits in a decade. 

Over the same decade, 40 percent of American households had mothers as the sole or primary breadwinner, up from 32 percent. According to 2013 data, 57 percent of women with a child under the age of 1 participate in the workforce. 

Minnesota's breastfeeding numbers are roughly comparable to national averages, and the working-women share is 10 percent higher

Case study: One McDonalds accommodates

Most state organizations already breastfeeding-compliant, says Larry Bourgerie, of the Minnesota chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management. But, he added, "For the smaller companies, it could be more difficult. It might be a struggle for small companies that don't have space."

However, it's not just small companies that could struggle; big companies operate in small spaces, too.

Reddit's ziggyllama pointed out that she works in a corporate-owned Minnesota McDonalds with well over the 50-employee cutoff that makes the organization fall under even the federal ACA law. Anyone who has ever worked in or been in a franchised fast food joint knows every last inch is maximized; unless that modular lactation room is Dr. Who's Tardis, there is no place for it in a highly engineered McDonalds restaurant. Or is there?

A couple years ago, a teenage mother and employee at a Pine County, Minnesota McDonalds named Sarah dropped onto the radar of Rebecca Fahning, a worksite lactation advocate and board-certified consultant. 

Sarah wanted to breastfeed at work but was too intimidated to broach the subject with her manager. Fahning acted as a liaison and soon the McDonalds had set up a screened-off, designated section of the employee crew room for pumping.

The manager even held an employee educational meeting, warning that any employee caught harassing or teasing Sarah about pumping would be reprimanded.

"They were as accommodating as the situation would allow, I think," Fahning said.

Even though the lactation room in Sarah's case might not seem ideal for many — nor would it strictly comply with the new WESA standards — it demonstrates finding common ground in a workplace of changing requirements.

"It's tough. I think mothers need to advocate for themselves but at the same time, I sympathize with small business owners," Fahning said.

After Sarah got her space, she was surprised to discover several of her colleagues had also been secretly pumping, in their car, or wherever they could. Maybe Reddit user ziggyllama was one of them. Today, other McDonalds employees use the room Sarah advocated for.

Case study: Walmart’s resistance

Fahning’s experience with McDonald’s is refreshing, but not all employers are as cooperative. 

"We had a bunch of pregnant girls that all worked at the same Walmart," said a Minnesota WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) coordinator who asked that she not be named as she still works with area employers.

When the WIC coordinator called Walmart to partner on facilities and systems to support pumping mothers "they wanted nothing to do with that," the coordinator said — adding that a Walmart personnel staffer said if a mom wanted to pump, she should talk to management. "There was no way they were even going to let us come and visit," the WIC representative said. 

"The room was a disaster," said Melissa A., one of the new mothers WIC tried to help.

Melissa, who still works at the same suburban Walmart, said three employees wanted to pump at work during that period. "One pumped in her car," Melissa said. "But then it got too hot for her outside." 

Through strength of personality, Melissa said she managed to pump for eight months while working. But she noted, "the urgency to clean a room for me wasn't there."

Walmart management basically made it her problem, finally offering her an unsanitary storage room Melissa described as an "office closet." That was after management told her to pump in one of the fitting rooms.

And it wasn't due to lack of space. Melissa said the building has plenty of options and the room she ended up using is not much more than a spillover storage space. She said after she stopped using and maintaining the room, it quickly filled with clutter again. Melissa said another employee recently tried to make pumping at the same Walmart work, but "she only lasted a week or two." 

Reached for comment, Grant, a manager with 19 years of experience at the Walmart in question who would not give his last name, said he was "not aware of anything to do with WIC." He said the location follows the Walmart corporate policy, adding that, "We provide a room when needed."

When asked if there was currently a dedicated room for nursing employees to pump, he repeated, "We provide one when needed."

The conversation was over.

Melissa, who's proud of her confrontational personality, said that's part of the problem. "When needed" means Walmart strategically putting the onus on the employee to push for her legal rights. "Most of the women there are so intimidated by the store. They feel they're a little person going against the army," she said.

"These employees are in a vulnerable position and are scared to death to lose their job," said the WIC coordinator. "So they are not going to walk in and say to their supervisor, 'I'm going to need two unpaid breaks during my 8 hour shift and I want a place that's private with a locked door.’ They're scared to death to do that."

"Many women fear the consequences of asking for ‘special treatment,’ and that fear is not unfounded," said the Breastfeeding Coalition’s McCoy. "It is especially problematic for unskilled workers, where they may be easily replaced by a non-lactating worker. Many women in all professions find asking for accommodations intimidating, given the weird reactions some people in our society have."

Ironically enough, Walmart sells dozens of breast pumps and fittings.

In fairness, locations seem to vary, suggesting the importance of understanding by individual Walmart managers. A Rancho Cordova, California Walmart won a Mother Baby Friendly Workplace Award from Breastfeeding Walk in 2008; meanwhile, a Louisiana Walmart employee made news last September when she complained of severe workplace harassment when she tried to pump.

Entrepreneurs’ solution

Asked if Minnesota's expanded law could push some to employers to further discriminate against women, HR pro Bourgerie admits there are always outliers living in the past. But, he concluded, "It's not only a foolish business decision but it's a foolish human decision. It's a signal of a no-class organization." 

Entrepreneurs are rushing into a legally widened breach. 

Chris Fredriksen, the Director of Sales at California-based Allied Modular, says it takes only about three hours to install one of the company's modular, prefab Lactation Rooms. The smart-looking faux-wood rooms can be configured for nearly any space.

The rooms start in the ballpark of $2,000 but can be more if installing power outlets (meeting the new Minnesota standard) are required. Fredriksen says interest in the company's rooms has been increasing quickly. It’s a solution that might not work in a cramped McDonalds, but could easily fit in a big-box retailer.

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