California's working mothers get stronger support for workplace lactation
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 state 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.”