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Breastfeeding In Non-traditional Occupations is Key to Improving Access to Higher-Paying, Skilled Careers

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Co-authored by Robin Runge, Director of Policy and Advocacy, Wider Opportunities for Women.

August is National Breastfeeding Month. This is a great opportunity for employers of women in non-traditional occupations to take a moment to learn what they can do to support nursing employees and ensure that they are -- at a bare minimum -- complying with new federal requirements that help nursing women remain in these skilled careers.

Despite higher pay, women do not enter non-traditional occupations at the same rate as men. For example, women hold less than two percent of construction jobs, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Research conducted by Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) found that significant gender-based occupational segregation contributes to economic insecurity for women across the lifespan. In other words, the top 50 jobs occupied by women pay significantly less than the top 50 jobs occupied by men, resulting in a substantial gender gap in wages every hour, every month and every year. Those top male-occupied jobs include machinists, industrial truck and tractor workers, plumbers and pipefitters. To successfully increase women's earnings and increase their economic security, more women must have meaningful access to these jobs.

Getting women hired into these jobs is only part of the solution, however. Women also need a realistic chance at succeeding at them. Too often, once in those jobs, women experience barriers to successful careers. For example, women in non-traditional occupations often have not initiated or continued breastfeeding after returning to full-time work. Scheduling inflexibility, lack of control over the availability and logistics of break time, insufficient privacy and sexual harassment are just some of the barriers nursing workers face with respect to expressing milk at work. Because of the mechanics of breastfeeding, difficulty expressing at work often means that a woman is faced with a decision to either quit her job or stop using breast milk as a food source for her child--or decide not to begin breastfeeding in the first place. (Nursing workers in other types of jobs also face barriers that place them in this catch-22 situation.)

Congress attempted to address the problem with the way workplaces are structured and the needs of women workers expressing at work in a little-noticed provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Section 4207 amends the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to require employers to provide reasonable break time and a private location other than a restroom for working women who are breastfeeding to express milk for up to a year after a child's birth. These requirements apply specifically to employees who are covered by the FLSA's minimum wage and overtime protections - generally hourly employees who make less than $455 a week and work in non-supervisory positions. While the new law does not apply to all workers who may need time and space to express milk, it clearly demonstrates an intent to encourage women to maintain employment while breastfeeding. In addition to assisting women in low-wage occupations, these provisions are critical for women considering careers in non-traditional occupations such as construction where the work sites historically may not have provided accommodations for breastfeeding employees.

So how can employers in male dominated occupations meet their responsibilities under the new law? A construction worksite could make a private office available, with covered windows and easy access to a bathroom to clean expression supplies after the employee has finished. The same office could contain a mini refrigerator to store pumped breast milk until employees leave for the day and take it home to their children. As the agency charged with enforcing these provisions, the Department of Labor, has recognized, this office does not have to be a permanent space that is used exclusively for breastfeeding. Shared spaces are acceptable provided privacy is maintained.

Employers also should make sure that employees are aware that they have a right to take the break time they need throughout the day to go to the office and pump breast milk, making sure that they experience no harassment or discrimination because of their decision to choose to return to work after pregnancy and continue to breastfeed. In these ways, the new labor standards can contribute to a work environment in non-traditional occupations that makes it truly possible for women to succeed and achieve economic security.

During National Breastfeeding Month, we call on employers in these fields to ensure their office policies comply with this new law and women are not excluded from non-traditional occupations because of a decision to breastfeed.