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Pumping at Work Already Sucks and It Could Get Worse

Photograph by Getty Images/Blend Images

Unless you’ve been purposely avoiding the news, you’re probably aware that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) may be repealed. What you may not be aware of is the impact this could have for breastfeeding moms.

When it was enacted, the ACA—also known as Obamacare—amended the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to grant nursing mothers both the time to pump milk and a private, non-bathroom place to do so. Though I’ve never purchased insurance through healthcare.gov, I have benefited from these provisions of the ACA.

The week before I returned from maternity leave, I brought my daughter into the office so my co-workers could meet her. While there, I mentioned to the HR Manager that I intended to pump and would need a private space.

“Just use the bathroom,” she said, “That’s what my friend does.”

This was in 2010, just after the passage of the ACA. So, after the HR Manager suggested I pump my infant’s food in a stall next to someone going #2, I just smiled and said, “No, that’s not hygienic. I need somewhere that isn’t a bathroom.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “We’re really running out of space here.”

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“I understand that,” I said, not backing down, “But it’s the law. I need a private space that isn’t a bathroom.”

She blinked at me and asked, “Do you have a copy of this law?”

“Sure thing,” I said, smiling.

I emailed her a copy of provisions in the ACA as soon as I could Google.

When I returned to work with my pump bag, the HR Manager told me that an attorney had reviewed the law, and because I was a salaried employee, they did not have to accommodate the request. (Apparently, women who aren’t paid an hourly rate all have lovely offices with locking doors. Who knew?)

“But don’t worry,” the HR Manager said. “The Vice President told me to find you a place because we want to be supportive.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Otherwise I would've had to pump at my desk in front of everyone.”

Without the ACA, I’m not sure what I would have done. I doubt my daughters would have been breastfeed for a year.

My desk happened to be in an open hallway, surrounded by a half-dozen male programmers. She laughed, assuming I was joking.

I wasn’t.

I’ve never been shy, and my desire to provide food for my daughter outweighed any lingering reservation I might have had. Out of sheer protest, I likely would have just tossed on a cover, pulled out the girls, and got to work. I’m kind of a dragon when I’m fighting for my rights or the rights of my children. I wasn’t about to let anyone stand in my way of expressing milk for my child. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to do it in the bathroom.

So, for the next year, I went into a small office with printer paper covering the windows and pumped. Three years later, after my second maternity leave, we had really outgrown our space, so the HR Manager worked with the building supervisor to find a place on another floor.

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Without the ACA, I’m not sure what I would have done. I doubt my daughters would have been breastfeed for a year. I had a hard enough time nursing without the added pressure of finding a place to pump three times a day. The law may not have applied to me, but it gave me the confidence to request what I needed. Though my employer didn't have to accommodate my request, the fact the provision existed for hourly employees set the standard for providing me with a private space.

As the first woman in my company to pump, I hope I helped pave the path for the young woman who later joined our growing workforce. Perhaps someone a bit shyer will someday benefit from my insistence.

If the ACA is repealed, nursing moms, regardless of their insurance coverage, could lose rights. Being a working, breastfeeding mother is hard enough. Let’s do our best to make sure these provisions stick around. Even better, let’s push to extend them to salaried workers as well. Otherwise, I foresee a whole lot of desk pumping.

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