Sep 17, 2007

Expressing Breast Milk at Work

Several states have passed laws that recognize the importance of allowing working mothers to express breast milk in the workplace. These laws usually require employers to provide the time (not necessarily paid) and proper facilities for expressing breast milk.

Perhaps the legislative movement is driven, in part, by the growing number of women who are breastfeeding. Though the numbers are on the rise, the CDC says current numbers fall short of goals. Apparently, these goals are largely based on the health benefits of breastfeeding.

That's why it's ironic that the National Board of Medical Examiners won't allow a nursing mother additional breaks and proper facilities to express breast milk during a physician licensing exam. Harvard-educated Sophie Currier wrote a letter to the Board requesting the extra time and a private location to plug in an electric breast pump. A Board representative responded that it could make accommodations for disabilities covered by the ADA--but expressing breast milk wasn't one them. The Board offered Ms. Currier access to a testing room, with a monitor and glass walls, to express breast milk during regularly-scheduled breaks, but wouldn't allow longer or additional breaks or a private location for that purpose.

Obviously, a law granting rights to lactating employees won't apply to Ms. Currier (Massachusetts, where she's taking the exam, doesn't have such a law, anyway). But her experience reminds us that it's worthwhile to provide the necessary time and space to lactating women even if it's not legally required. An employer who does so will engender goodwill (or maybe even make Working Mother's list of 10 Best Companies for Breastfeeding), which can be particularly important for an employee who is reintegrating into the workforce after an absence. Also, the employee avoids physical problems, like breast engorgement and mastitis (an infection caused by blocked milk ducts) that could result in lost work time.

If your state has a law about expressing breast milk in the workplace, make sure your company complies with the law. And if not, consider whether it's good business practice to provide this benefit anyway.

Update, September 27, 2007: A Massachusetts appeals court judge ruled that Sophie Currier can take additional time during the exam to express breast milk. The judge said the extra time would put Ms. Currier on equal footing with men and nonlactating women taking the exam.

Alayna Schroeder