Breastfeeding Access at Work Remains Limited

An important piece of legislation related to paid working mothers largely flew under the news radar last week, generating very little coverage or controversy. The Providing Urgent Maternal Protections (PUMP) for Nursing Mothers Act, which would have extended workplace protections for pumping to 9 million workers, failed to pass the Senate on June 22. The bill passed the House in October, and had been sitting in the Senate for more than a year.

In the same week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued updated guidelines for breastfeeding, encouraging mothers to breastfeed for up to two years. Meanwhile, families continue to struggle amid the ongoing formula shortage, making breastfeeding increasingly critical for many parents. The failure of the PUMP Act—especially as it coincides with the AAP guidelines and the formula shortage—raises new questions and concerns for nursing mothers when it comes to sustaining both workforce participation and breastfeeding.

Research shows that these protections are indeed urgently needed by nursing parents returning to work for the sake of meeting both work and breastfeeding needs. Returning to work or school is one of the most common reasons moms cite for choosing to formula feed. In Motherly’s 2022 State of Motherhood survey, 35% of moms said they didn’t meet their breastfeeding goals because they had to return to work.

Moms lack support, flexibility to meet pumping needs

Recent research by Werklabs further highlights the challenges many moms experience when it comes to meeting breastfeeding needs in the workplace. Last month, Werklabs conducted a comprehensive survey on parental leave; the full findings and complete report are expected to be released within the next few months. In the survey’s open-ended feedback, many mothers describe a clash between their pumping needs and work requirements. They report uncooperative or unsupportive managers and coworkers, often stating that their team, company, or manager does not understand their pumping needs. Surveyed mothers also describe difficulties pumping because of unfriendly or inflexible work environments.


What's next?

The PUMP Act would have helped to alleviate these issues for many nursing mothers in the workplace in several ways. It would have required employers to provide accommodations specifically for the purpose of expressing breast milk to several classes of employees not covered under current law. It would have also provided nursing parents the same protections available to other workers through the Fair Labor Standards Act, giving them ways to secure reasonable accommodations for pumping in the workplace if employers failed to do so.

Though the PUMP Act failed, there is another important piece of legislation on the horizon concerning nursing parents in the workplace. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act passed the House in May 2021, and was reintroduced in the Senate on June 21, 2022. Unlike the PUMP Act, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act has bipartisan sponsorship, strong support on both sides of the aisle, and looks likely to pass. The bill ensures that employers make reasonable accommodations for employees “affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.”

These bills are different in several key ways. First, while the PUMP Act focuses solely on protections for employees needing to express breast milk, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act encompasses a wider range of medical conditions, potentially benefiting a larger number of working parents. However, it does not explicitly mention nursing, breast milk, or pumping – though these needs are presumably encompassed under “related medical conditions.” Second, the PUMP Act stipulated that employers with fewer than 50 employees would not be subject to the requirements of the law if they could be shown to impose an “undue hardship” on the business. This provision is also included in the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, but it isn’t explicitly limited to employers with fewer than 50 employees. Perhaps this is why the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is poised to pass where the PUMP Act did not, as the main objection detractors of the PUMP Act cited revolved around concerns around excessive burdens to businesses.

In any case, although the bill does extend workplace protections to nursing parents, it also leaves more wiggle room than the PUMP Act would have for businesses seeking to avoid providing accommodations by demonstrating an “undue hardship.” In the weeks and months to come, those concerned with working mothers’ ability to balance work and breastfeeding needs would do well to pay attention to both the passage and implementation of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

Georgia Anderson-Nilsson, PhD
Georgia Anderson-Nilsson, PhD

Georgia is a WerkLabs researcher specializing in policy issues and thought leadership related to working parenthood. A new mom herself, she’s passionate about using data-driven approaches to help power better workplaces.