If You Can't Breast-Feed At Work, Call The Government

breastfeeding at work governmentIt was one of the less touted regulations nestled in President Obama's Affordable Care Act. For the first time, workplaces would be required to give breastfeeding mothers a time, and place, to pump their breast milk whenever they needed it. Now the Labor Department is following through on the rule. Twenty-three companies so far have been issued citations for failure to comply at some locations, reports MSNBC.

The new law demands that employers provide "reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child" for up to a year after the child's birth, as well as "a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk."

The policy was a great triumph for breastfeeding advocates. The number of breastfed babies has been creeping up every year since 2007, when the U.S. government began tracking it. But at six months, only 15 percent were exclusively breastfed, which is what the World Health Organization, UNICEF, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American College of Nurse-Midwives all recommend.

Feeding a baby breast milk for six months is a challenge, especially when only half of working mothers in this country get any paid maternity leave, and breast-feeding publicly can draw stares, harassment and even arrest.

Since formula was cheap and plentiful by the time women entered the workplace, offices didn't need to adapt to babies or breast-feeding. Women just stopped doing it. By the mid-1950s, only one in five babies ever latched their mother's breast at all.

It's even harder for low-income women, who are far less likely to receive paid maternity leave, and far more likely to have inflexible working conditions, where they can't freely take breaks or find total privacy.

But as research began to make the extensive health benefits of breastmilk clear, campaigners have fought to make breast-feeding easier for the modern, active, working female. But since women's breasts have become so highly sexualized, freeing them for their intended purpose is a slow and unfinished task.

In the last decade, almost every state peeled back its law that classified breast-feeding publicly as "indecent exposure." The Bush administration even sponsored a series of public service ads about it in 2004. One spot featured two pregnant women violently racing at a roller derby and ended with the line: "You wouldn't risk your baby's health before it's born. Why start after?" Under pressure from infant formula lobbyists, those ads were never aired.

Women have launched breast-feeding flash mobs and sit-ins to rally against restrictive policies. And now the Labor Department is enforcing the new workplace law with much greater force.

Already, Dollar General, Dillard's, Starbucks and McDonald's have received citations for failing to provide adequate space and time at particular locations. All have agreed to comply, and Dollar General even gave a woman $814.43 in back wages.

The exact rules concerning the law are not yet complete, but the Department of Labor has a fact sheet online, and is requesting feedback and any information about violations from employers and employees. So if you're a mother in your first year of breast-feeding, and your employer doesn't offer the breaks and space that you need to pump your infant's next meal, there are no longer just a handful of advocates on your side. There's the law.

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