I admit it: I am often first in line to complain about businesses that do not proactively support employees who need to pump breast milk at work. …and then, through a friend, I met Megan Wesley – a small business owner and mom herself. Megan walked me through the financial and operational implications of having a pumping employee on her staff of two (in other words, half of her workforce). And while I still believe that things need to change on the business and legislative levels (not to mention culture overall), hearing Megan’s story and point of view was really eye-opening for me. So, without further ado: Megan’s story:
Two years ago, I was a new mom heading back to work, ubiquitous black Medela pump bag in hand, ready(ish) to tackle the challenges of pumping on the job. Turns out, I didn’t really have any challenges compared to most other women. Yep, I was lucky. As a lawyer at a big law firm, I returned to work after a lengthy paid maternity leave. In my firm’s fancy-schmancy downtown office, there was a dedicated lactation room stocked with a mini-fridge, comfortable lounge chair, a guest chair (for…spectators?), sink, electrical outlets, WiFi, side table, the whole nine yards.
Zip forward two years. I am no longer a big firm attorney. After years of doing mergers and acquisitions for the firm’s clients, I bought a small company. I now have two employees and run a business.
One of my employees recently had a baby and was out on an unpaid maternity leave. I know I know I know…I shouldn’t have had the privilege of a paid leave and then provide only unpaid leave (while my own child is still in diapers nonetheless). It’s not fair. But the tables have turned and I am now the employer with a budget to consider. Maybe someday I will run a company that’s large enough that a paid maternity leave doesn’t increase my payroll expenses by close to 50%. Until then, here a few thoughts I’ve had about pumping on the job from an employer’s viewpoint:
1. Pumping at work is expensive. There are the initial set up costs for furnishing an appropriate pumping room. Is it even worth it to do this for one employee who may or may not stick with the company? There’s lost office “real estate”. There’s time spent getting the room set up. There are maintenance costs. The pumping employee’s break times will be spent pumping, and I have to consider whether the loss of actual breaks for my employee would affect her productivity.
2. Other employees are burdened. We do not live in a perfect world where employees are universally willing to help out a colleague. While some may willingly cover for an occasional dentist appointment or family funeral, asking an employee to cover another’s duties 2-4 times a day for several months is a different story. At my company, the new mother employee was our receptionist, responsible for answering phone calls for 50+ people and greeting an endless stream of guests. Which she obviously could not do while pumping. (Though my office is close to liberal Boulder, Colorado, pumping in the middle of the reception area miiight be pushing it.) So my only other employee would have to cover for her during her pumping sessions. As with any business, requiring another employee to forego duties to cover for another employee means that there is work that takes longer to get done. And then there are the complaints from the employee covering for the pumping employee. I would expect to have at least one meeting per week listening to complaints from the employee who was covering the other employee’s duties. Minimum. Which means more lost time. And a lot of eye rolling and forehead-pounding-keyboard moments on my part.
3. The big company myth. Based on what I’ve seen, many large firms have generous (by U.S. standards, anyway) maternity leave policies, encourage pumping, and have private rooms set up for breastfeeding mothers. Which is great, for the 3-4% of people that actually work there. But companies employing 50 or fewer employees employ 96-97% of the U.S. workforce, and those small businesses may not be required to accommodate pumping women if doing so “would impose an undue hardship by causing the employer significant difficulty or expense when considered in relation to the size, financial resources, nature, or structure of the employer’s business.” (Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (29 U.S.C. 207), as amended by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act)
It turns out my receptionist will not be returning to work and will be staying home with her child. I reluctantly admit that I am relieved.
So what are small businesses supposed to do? From dry cleaners to boutiques to restaurants to my own company, many small businesses rely on a small group of employees to run the company. And in many cases, the employees are performing functions that cannot be done while pumping. Providing pumping mothers with space and time to pump does create hardships for the company.
I don’t have any answers but wanted to get the conversation flowing about this issue. Decisions about how to accommodate or support pumping women are not just made by cold-hearted executives in a fancy boardroom trying to create value for their stockholders. These decisions are also made by mothers sitting at the kitchen table. Which is probably still a little sticky from Sunday’s pancake breakfast.
Jessica here again – so…what do YOU think? As Megan says, her intention was to get the conversation started. Have her insights given you any new food for thought? I’m excited to see the conversation unfold…but because this is a pretty hot topic, I want to gently remind everyone that this blog is a no-Mommy-Wars zone. Respectful disagreement and dialogue are welcomed. Disrespectful dialogue will be deleted 🙂
P.S. Want more posts and content about the journey through modern motherhood? Join me at www.facebook.com/JessicaShortallWrites.