Sunday, September 03, 2006

Two-Class System for Nursing Mothers

The New York Times* published an article on Friday, "On the job, nursing mothers find a 2-class system." It addresses nicely some of the concerns raised in response to the breastfeeding campaign that generated controversy earlier this year**. It begins by contrasting corporate and retail Starbucks employees - the corporate mother has access to a lactation room, complete with a comfy recliner, magazines, privacy curtains, and a corporate-issue breast pump, whereas the in-store employee must sequester herself in a customer restroom stall and hope she finishes before her allotted break is over. The point, which the breastfeeding campaigns didn't address, is that working class women are often unable to breastfeed because they have to work but have no ability to pump at their workplace.

In another anecdote from the piece, one worker reports: "'I feel like I had to choose between feeding my baby the best food and earning a living,' said Jennifer Munoz, a former cashier at Resorts Atlantic City Casino who said she faced obstacles that included irregular breaks and a refrigerator behind a locked door. She said she often dumped her milk into the toilet, knowing that if she did not pump every few hours, her milk supply would soon dwindle." The casino responds that they have policies in place that would have accomodated Munoz. Clearly, there was some disconnect between the existing policy, Munoz, and her employer.

The article also mentions states' somewhat wishy-washy breastfeeding laws, which often consist of language stating that employers "may provide reasonable accomodations," which is notably different from requiring such accomodations. In addition to workplace barriers, the article suggests that many low-income women cannot afford to purchase a breast pump. A skeptic might suggest that if a woman can't afford a breast pump, she can't afford formula, either. However, if any of you have ever subsisted on a job such as waitressing, you know how it can be easier to purchase a little bit of something that is more expensive in the long run than to lay out a week's pay for one item (if that weren't the case, laundomats and furniture rental stores would hardly exist). Added to the workplace barriers, it's easy to understand how women might make this choice and feel that there is no choice at all.

The piece offers other anecdotes (alongside statistics that suggest that many women try to breastfeed, but many stop eventually, and 1/3 of those report work problems as the primary reason):

  • Regarding a Red Lobster waitress in Evansville, IL: "According to the complaint Ms. Walker filed with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, the restaurant ignored a note she brought from her nurse explaining her need to pump. The managers cut her hours, assigned her to the worst tables and ridiculed her — for instance, jiggling the restaurant’s milk containers and joking that they were for her. Eventually Ms. Walker’s milk ducts clogged, landing her in the hospital with mastitis." (Red Lobster officials insist that they did provide appropriate support, but declined to provide details due to the confidential settlement)

  • "Shortly after Marlene Warfield, a dental hygienist in Tacoma, Wash., began pumping on the job, she said her boss wore a Halloween costume consisting of a large silver box — his interpretation of a pump, perhaps — with a cutout labeled “insert breast here.” When he instructed Ms. Warfield to leave her pump at home, she said, she quit her job— and consulted the local human rights commission, which found nothing illegal about the dentist’s actions."

    Associate professor of pediatrics Dr. Barbara L. Phillips sums up the dilemma nicely when she "recalled a small furor about whether Jane Swift, the former governor of Massachusetts who gave birth to twins, would breast-feed after returning to work. 'That’s a great thing to do, but she had her own office and could set her own schedule,' Dr. Philipp said. 'The one I want to know about is the lady cleaning her office.'"

    Related: A breastfeeding helpline (both English and Spanish) has been set up at 1-800-994-9662 (9am-6pm EST). According to the website: "The National Women's Health Information Center has La Leche League International trained Breastfeeding Peer Counselors who can help you with common breastfeeding questions on issues ranging from nursing positions to pumping and storage, and provide you with support to make breastfeeding a success. The Helpline is open to nursing mothers as well as their partners, families, prospective parents, health professionals and institutions seeking to better educate new mothers about the benefits of breastfeeding." (not for medical diagnosis)

    *Try BugMeNot if you have trouble accessing the story.
    **The US Department of Health and Human Services is reportedly slated to launch a campaign, "The Business Case for Breastfeeding," that will address some of these issues. Materials from or regarding the program are not yet available. The most recent ad campaign seemed to suggest that women simply didn't know breastfeeding is best, despite statistics indicating that over 70% of women at least attempt to breastfeed. I am glad to hear of this new employer-focused effort, as I believe that workplace barriers are a major reason more women don't breastfeed.

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    Blogger Ivy, the Great and Powerful said...

    Thank you very much for this post, it is an important one. :)

    8:05 AM  

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