Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Allies Already Poised to Comply: How Social Proximity Affects Lactation at Work Law Compliance

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Allies Already Poised to Comply: How Social Proximity Affects Lactation at Work Law Compliance

Article excerpt

After returning to work following maternity leave, some women employees combine paid employment with breastfeeding by expressing breast milk while at work. Until relatively recently, the law did not provide for accommodations of lactating employees. Growing awareness of the importance of breast milk and the difficulties of continuing to nurse while fully employed prompted various states and, eventually, the federal government, to pass Lactation at Work laws.


Alysha, a 32-year-old lactating employee, processed orders and other paperwork for a large manufacturing company. Because she worked in a cubical, she did not have sufficient privacy to express milk at her desk and had to go elsewhere each time she needed to pump breast milk. While this had been burdensome when she pumped for her first child, her current employer created a lactation room that made her milk expression much easier. She said:

When I had my first child at [another company], sometimes I'd pump [my breast milk] in the Ladies' Room. Once in a while, I pumped in my car. There just wasn't any place to pump...This [second] baby I had after the law changed. [My workplace] gave me my own key to a small room on the same floor as where I was working. [HR staff person on lactation issues, Gary] was so great. He really went out of his way to help. He found the room, he got me my own key, he would check in with me, like 'Do you need anything more in [the lactation room]?' I was very supported.


Gary, the supportive HR person Alysha mentioned, knew about the difficulties of expressing milk at work because his wife had worked full time while breastfeeding their two children. Understanding breastfeeding as something worth supporting, he had tried to create lactation rooms for the women in the company who were breastfeeding over the past years, but found little support from management. However, after the law was passed, he could frame his request as an important component of compliance with the new law, and so was able to garner sufficient funds and suitable rooms. He said:

This was something I had tried to get going. Space is tight, so no area was willing to just give me a spare room. There were no rooms anyone thought of as 'spare.' I actually submitted a proposal about this to [upper management] as part of another report - a way to make our company more distinct, decrease turnover, help [employee] moms who are coming back to work. All that. Basically, they said I could do it, but didn't authorize me to take over any space, or any additional funds to do it. So, basically no one would have stopped me, but no one helped do what needed to get done for this to happen.

Then after the law, I pulled that part of the report, made it its own thing. And this time, I could say, 'Look! This is the law! We've got to do this. We either just barely do it, or do it well.' And I convinced them to do it well, to give me more money to buy some things, to demand some rooms. I mean, the rooms were there, they just had to move things [around to clear out the rooms so they could be used as lactation rooms]...We help our employees to stop bad behavior - stop smoking, lose weight - but here we're helping our employees, that is, our mom employees, to actually do a healthy behavior.

Gary and Alysha are not unique. In many other organizations I studied, individual managers or human resource supervisors were supportive of the goals of the new Lactation at Work law before it was even passed. They became "Allies Already" and advocated for accommodation of lactating employees' needs, often surpassing what the law mandated.

The Lactation at Work law requires that the organization provide the lactating worker with a private, nonlavatory space and allow the employee "reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child's birth" (Federal-Lactation-at-Work-Law 2010). The law was created because lactating employees need to express breast milk throughout the workday in order to maintain their milk supply. …

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