It was 1854 when the first patent for a breast pump was issued to an inventor in New York State. Since then, the device Lea Hardy is about to use to pump breast milk hasn’t changed much.
She connects a funnel-shaped plastic cup to the top of a small baby bottle — It kind of resembles an air horn. She unzips her sweatshirt, lifts her tank top, holds the funnel-shaped cup firmly against her breast, and squeezes the handle.
Milk is being sucked out of Hardy’s nipple and into the bottle. First one breast and then the other.
“I try to get three ounces on each side,” Hardy says.
If you’ve never done this yourself, imagine pumping a basketball with one hand--with your breast exposed--for 15 to 30 minutes. Then, do it again every three to four hours. Now imagine doing this while you’re at your job.
“I wasn’t sure what to do at work, I was new at everything,” says Hardy. “And they said if I need to step away to pump to just let them know so I can do what I gotta do. And then come back to work.”
Hardy is a waitress. After her first son was born, she worried about working and breastfeeding. On her first day back she went to the staff lounge, where she usually took her breaks. “I tried to (pump) once there but I felt very uncomfortable, because I was afraid somebody's going to come in while I was doing that,” she explains.
The staff lounge wasn’t private and it didn’t have a door that locked. So the next time, she went someplace else: the bathroom. But that didn’t feel right either, she says. “Like, I'm pumping milk for my kid where people use the bathroom. I felt kind of weird doing it in the bathroom, but better than nothing.”
The right to pump at work
The experience bothered Hardy so much that after her second son was born, she didn’t want to pump in the bathroom again. Instead, she prefers to pump in her car.
Stories like Hardy’s are not unique to San Francisco District Four Supervisor Katy Tang. “We heard a lot of horror stories from working moms,” Tang says, “But a lot of these moms, they had no choice.”
Current Federal and California laws require employers to provide employees with a break time and private place to pump, other than a bathroom. But these laws don’t guide employers on how to provide a private place. An employer doesn’t have to offer a private place to pump until an employee asks for it. Many women don’t know their rights, let alone feel empowered asserting them.
“I think many women do not feel comfortable asking for a lactation accommodation,” Tang says. “And so a lot of them, they just don't ask.”
Tang wants to change this dynamic with the Lactation In the Workplace Ordinance. It would require all San Francisco employers to create lactation policies. This would make asking for an accommodation less like a request for special treatment. Tang says the ordinance would make it “normalized," so that "no one feels embarrassed for accommodations. It’s just a natural part of the workplace,” she explains.
If the legislation passes, plans for new construction and remodels will need to include lactation rooms. For existing workplaces, a lactation space will need to meet minimum standards. Basically, it’s got to be clean, safe, and private, with a tabletop, chair and access to electricity, and there has to be water and a fridge somewhere nearby. The lactation space doesn’t have to be permanent — It can be used for other things when an employee isn’t pumping.
Even so, not all employers will be able to meet these requirements.
Dandelion Chocolate, on Valencia Street in San Francisco, is a cafe, chocolate factory, and a retail space. Because of the open floor plan, you can watch as they make chocolate “from beans to bar,” as they like to say. Jennifer Roy is the Director of Public Relations and Marketing; she used to pump milk for her baby, so she’s supportive of the legislation. But she also sees how it could be a challenge for some employers to create a private space.
“Many work environments are like this: it's a restaurant. This is a food facility, a production facility. It's not an office, where you can just close the blinds and sit in a conference room,” she says.
Dandelion Chocolate has never had a lactating employee, but they currently have one who’s pregnant. So Roy and I try to figure out where where they might put a lactation space. The most obvious location is the office, which has a door. But that won’t do because it’s a high-use area. It’s also the employee break room, where employees keep their belongings in lockers. Roy can’t see making it off-limits for thirty minutes during the day. So we search for another place where someone could go for privacy.
“We don't actually have anywhere other than a closet, and I wouldn’t want anyone to even be in there,” Roy laments.
But with no other options, we check out the closet, which is more like a storage room, with shelves lining the walls. But it’s got a skylight and when the door is closed, it’s private. We move some boxes, and there’s a chair and plenty of room to place a pump. I tick off the rest of the minimum standards with Roy:
Access to electricity? Check.
Close proximity to refrigerator and sink? Check.
Free from toxic or hazardous materials? Check.
Roy realizes that “with some imagination,” this could be a lactation space that meets the requirements of the legislation.
How pumping at work could benefit low income families the most
Employers who can’t meet the requirements can apply for a hardship exception. But there’s a reason why this legislation applies to all employers, and not just those in traditional office buildings. In San Francisco, low-income moms, especially women of color, often work for smaller businesses. And they experience a steep drop-off for exclusively breastfeeding at four months, when compared to the rest of California.
“These numbers are alarming,” says Priti Rani, the San Francisco Director of Nutrition Services at the Federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program, which supports low income breastfeeding families.
“She is not well supported to make this breastfeeding work for her and her baby,” Rani says.
She explains that there are several reasons for this disparity: these moms often return to work faster after giving birth, and have less flexibility in their jobs, in their work hours and in childcare.
“This legislation definitely will impact or enable these mothers to continue to breastfeed if they chose to do so after they return to work,” Rani says.
There’s also a clear business-case for breastfeeding, Rani adds: healthier moms and babies lead to less absenteeism and lower health insurance costs, higher morale and employee retention.
Electric or manual, if the Lactation in the Workplace ordinance passes, the sound of breast pumps could become a typical part the San Francisco workday.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will consider the Lactation in the Workplace ordinance on May 22 at 1:30pm.