The lactation room wasn’t a room at all.
It was a corner of the lunch room in an old King County building in Seattle's Columbia City neighborhood.
A shoji screen was set up for privacy, although cracks allowed people to see through. A vent blew in cold air.
Kaila Tang, a public health nurse for Seattle and King County, knew that she wouldn’t be able to produce much milk if she pumped there. That’s her job, after all – she helps new moms establish breastfeeding – and she knows that a cold, uncomfortable space can make it harder to express milk.
“The vasculature shrinks; it constricts,” Tang said. “It’s not conducive to letdown or good milk flow. You want to be relaxed. Physiologically, it’s not conducive to a good amount of milk coming out.”
Her supervisor offered her office, but Tang felt awkward. “What employee would feel comfortable kicking their supervisor out of her office two or three times a day, 20 minutes at a time?” she said.
So Tang started pumping at her desk.
“I’m in a large room with other nurses who do similar jobs – all of whom are female, although there are a couple of male coworkers in the area as well,” Tang said.
“I whip out my breasts, hook up the pump,” she said. “If people start to approach from behind, people say, ‘She’s pumping, she’s pumping! Don’t go there.’ Or eventually, as they approach, they hear the pump.”
She endures this, she said, because, “the most important thing is feeding my child breastmilk.”
When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, it included a provision that requires employers to provide lactation rooms for moms until their child is a year old. There are two exceptions: moms on salaries (known as exempt) and businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
A lactation room cannot be a bathroom and must be “shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers.” It does not have to be a permanent space if moms don’t need it, but it must be available when they do. The Department of Labor recommends a lock.
“A shoji screen would seem to be inadequate,” said Seattle attorney Jason Rittereiser of HKM Employment Attorneys. He said employers sometimes lose sight of the intention of the law.
“The Legislature looked at evidence and data from various health organizations and they came to the conclusion that it’s beneficial for mothers to breastfeed their children,” Rittereiser said.
“Mothers must consistently pump or feed on a schedule – that’s going to conflict when people are at work, so they put in some protections so that mothers can continue to provide healthy food for their babies,” he said.
A pause for those unfamiliar with pumping: Pumping is the act of removing milk from a mother’s breasts. For roughly 20 minutes, two to three times a day, working moms attach suction cups to their breasts. The pump then sucks out milk into bottles.
Moms pump to take milk home to their babies for the next day. They also pump to encourage their milk ducts to produce more milk – if they stop, their bodies would likely respond by reducing output. Moms also pump for comfort, because it's painful when milk builds up.
There’s something else to know about pumping: It requires a peaceful space. Try peeing in front of strangers – for most people, that's hard to do.
We recently asked moms to share photos of their lactation rooms with us (you can see those in the slideshow above). Some boasted suites with mini fridges, sinks and comfortable chairs. Others were less impressive – a waitress sent us a photo of a dirty bathroom. She pumps sitting on an open toilet, which she said she had to scrub clean of dried excrement.
We produced a lactation room slideshow last year as well. That story focused on KUOW’s lactation room. At the time, it was a network room. It had a locking door, but it was narrow and dirty. Wires hung from the walls.
Caryn Mathes, our CEO and general manager, had just come aboard and made it a priority to get a new lactation room. Caryn, Janice McKenna, our finance director, Dane Johnson, our operations director, and Arvid Hokanson, our assistant programming director, created an impressive space that includes a hospital-grade pump, mini fridge and amazing art work. (We are naming them here because we are so grateful to them.)
It wasn’t easy for our bosses to find a room to convert into a lactation room. KUOW is bursting at the seams. But they figured it out. Rittereiser said employers will often use lack of space as an excuse.
“Always my reaction to those kinds of claims – ‘Where else would we put them?’ – is ‘I don’t know. It’s burdensome on you to figure out,’” he said.
At KUOW, a new room had an immediate effect on Isolde, who started producing nearly twice as much milk as she had in the network room.
Health Care Providers
Six nurses and doctors in Seattle told us they pump in shower stalls and their cars. Some try to duck into patient rooms.
Although hospitals have lactation rooms, the women said those rooms are reserved for patients or too far from where they work.
One mom told us she pumps in a locker room in the basement of another building at the University of Washington. A supervisor denied her request to bring in a mini fridge.
Another University of Washington doctor told us the nearest lactation room is 20 minutes away, so she pumps in her car or the bathroom. The tone of her email was furious.
This was a theme last year as well, when we received several photos from Swedish Medical Center anesthesiologists. Their lactation room was a shower stall with a plastic folding chair. Someone from the hospital’s communication’s office later suggested the women were lying, and when we said we had verified their employment, they said that the women were free to use lactation rooms across the hospital.
Swedish has two employee-only lactation rooms at Swedish First Hill and one at each of its other hospitals.
No one in these situations considered suing their employer, although most of the women did approach someone at work about getting a better space. Most are happy at their jobs and too exhausted by parenting to push boundaries.
“A lot of moms think, ‘I’m tough, I’m back at work. I’ll make it work,’” Rittereiser said. “The other is, ‘Do I have time to deal with this?’”
But it's unclear if the moms could pursue a case. The courts are currently sorting out whether women would be allowed to file civil suits against their employer. They may instead have to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, which would then determine whether to take up their cause.
Megan Lazovick in New Jersey was among a dozen moms who replied to our request for pump room photos.
Lazovick is the director of research at Edison Research, a small company that wouldn’t have to comply with the federal statute. Around the time her first child was born, she poked around her company’s old building to find a pump room.
“I knew there was this closet – a nice big storage room that for years had just been collecting dust and folders and objects that no one used,” Lazovick said.
“Instead of just asking for a pumping room, I thought of a solution first: ‘Hey, let’s clean this out, it can also be a place to record voice-overs … and by the way, I’m going to use it as a pumping room.’”
She found a mini fridge in the office and asked her coworkers if they wouldn’t mind her using it for milk.
People walking by can hear the whir of the pump, but Lazovick doesn’t mind. “I decided that I wasn’t going to be embarrassed that I had to pump. I wasn’t going to sneak away because I’m not going to get the support I need if they don’t know I’m pumping.”
As for nurse Kaila Tang, the irony of her situation is not lost on her. Part of her job is empowering clients to negotiate a lactation space at work.
Since she came forward to discuss her situation, the King County’s Department of Health told KUOW that it will examine better options for its Columbia City clinic building.
“It helped that Kaila brought some issues forward,” said TJ Cosgrove, division director of Community Health Services.
“This is our work,” Cosgrove said. “We are working with clients and community to elevate the importance of breastfeeding.”
While newer county health clinics have lactation rooms for staff, the Columbia City building has so little space, he said. But he said he doesn’t want that to prevent them from figuring out a better solution for Tang.
Tang was initially hesitant to tell her story because she loves her job and respects her bosses. But knowing that other women are in this situation – including many of her clients – pushed her to speak up.
“I'm a white woman with a college education and a professional licensure, and my privilege allows me to speak up about this,” she said. “Not every working pumping mom enjoys the same protections.”
Editor's note 10/20/2015: In the original version of the audio posted above, online editor Isolde Raftery said King County is breaking the law by not offering a dedicated room for nurse Kaila Tang to pump. The county responded that offering a supervisor’s office falls in line with the federal law. As such, we have removed that portion of the audio because we could not find case law saying if a supervisor’s office counts as a lactation space.
The 2010 federal law says: “Employers are also required to provide a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.”