When Brooke Grandt, a 34-year-old mother of two, answered the phone recently, she immediately warned the caller that not only was she in the car, her breast pump might be audible in the background.

Grandt, who lives in Draper, Utah, didn’t want to give up breastfeeding when she went back to work. But as an occupational therapist who does early intervention with babies and children under the age of 3, she spends much of her day traveling from one client’s home to another. So she uses the pump during the day — in her car — so she can keep her supply of milk up and breastfeed her 8-month-old son at home in the morning and evenings.

“I’m on the go and it’s just more convenient for me to do it in the car,” said Grandt, who said that her employer would give her the necessary time and space she needed to pump if she wanted to do it in the office.

Grandt feels fortunate — unlike her, many women have found themselves pumping in the car not by choice but because their employer has left them with no other option. But new legislation is about to make life easier for nursing mothers and pregnant women.

Comprehensive protections

After giving birth and returning to work, Sarah, a health care worker at a long-term care facility in Kansas, wanted to continue breastfeeding her baby. But her supervisor would only allow her to pump breast milk on her lunch break and, because she wasn’t provided with a private place to do so, Sarah ended up pumping in her car. Because she couldn’t pump as frequently as she needed to, Sarah’s milk supply dropped and, with it, her ability to breastfeed her infant.

But at least she kept her job. Izabel, a North Carolina dental assistant, was fired after presenting her employer with a doctor’s note saying she needed to take three 15-minute breaks a day in order to pump. 

These are the experiences of just two of the hundreds of women who have reached out to the legal hotline of “A Better Balance,” a nonprofit that uses legal advocacy to advance policies beneficial to families and caregivers. Their stories were part of testimony given before a congressional subcommittee meeting in 2021.

Both women’s rights to breastfeed were likely covered under the 2010 Break Time for Nursing Mothers Provision, an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act; however, limited enforcement meant many American women went unprotected despite the bill. 

But the new legislation offers America’s women and families more comprehensive protections. In May, protection for nursing mothers in the workplace was enacted through the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act, also known as the PUMP Act. And the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will take effect on June 27.

Brooke Grandt shows part of her breast pump at home in Draper on Thursday, June 22, 2023. Grandt works as an occupational therapist and often has to pump milk in her car before or after driving to see clients. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

‘A major milestone’

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act “is one of the biggest advances in civil rights law in decades,” said Ailen Arreaza, executive director of Parents Together, a nonprofit that partnered with other advocacy organizations, including A Better Balance and Moms Rising, to push for the legislation.  

“It’s a major milestone for gender, racial and economic justice across the country,” Arreaza said.

The new federal law requires most employers to provide workers with reasonable accommodations for limitations that are related to pregnancy, childbirth, or associated medical conditions; however, the accommodations must not cause an employer undue hardship. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act only covers accommodations, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission noted, adding that previous legislation is supposed to protect employees from being fired or discriminated against due to pregnancy, childbirth, or related conditions.

Further, this new federal law doesn’t supersede state and municipal laws that are even “more protective of workers,” according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which offered the following as examples of reasonable accommodations: additional, longer, or more flexible breaks, or increased flexibility so that a worker might be able to eat, drink, go the bathroom, or rest; flexible work schedules; allowing a worker to have water or food while working; allowing workers to take time for pregnancy-related appointments or recovery after childbirth.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act closes loopholes that existed in the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, legislation that, itself, amended Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Prior to the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, pregnant workers had to prove that their needs constituted a pregnancy-related disability. Under the new law, that will no longer be necessary. 

“Reasonable accommodations is not a new idea — workers with disabilities have been able to request reasonable accommodations for many, many years,” Arreaza said. “But now pregnant workers fall into that category. So that really allows pregnant workers to not have to choose between their health and their job or the health of their baby and their job.” 

Brooke Grandt kisses her son at home in Draper on Thursday, June 22, 2023. Grandt works as an occupational therapist and often has to pump milk in her car before or after driving to see clients. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Protecting breastfeeding mothers

The PUMP Act requires all employers to provide breastfeeding mothers with “reasonable break time” to pump breast milk; it also stipulates that employers must provide women a private place, other than a bathroom, “that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public” to express breast milk. 

“If your breastfeeding relationship isn’t supported at work, you won’t have a breastfeeding relationship to come home to. Milk removal at work is essential if you want to make milk for your baby at home,” said Susan Johnson, founder of Motherfed, a lactation consultancy firm. Additionally, the new protections afforded to breastfeeding mothers under the PUMP Act might also result in “greater respect for workers who are also parents,” said Johnson.

Breastfeeding mothers are covered by the PUMP Act for one year after giving birth. 

“The PUMP Act is really, really important because the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) gave protections but no teeth to enforce those protections,” said Danielle Shelton, a law professor at Drake University. “So the PUMP act steps in there and says, ‘Here’s how you can enforce these rights.’ As lawyers we always say, ‘You don’t really have a right if you don’t have the mechanisms to enforce it.’”

However, the new legislation isn’t airtight, according to worker advocates. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt, as are air carriers, meaning that airline employees will not be protected by the PUMP Act. 

In May, a number of Democratic legislators introduced the AIR PUMP Bill that aims to extend protections to the airline workers who aren’t covered by the PUMP Act. 

Still, taken together, the PUMP Act and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act are a victory, decades in the making, that will help to keep working mothers-to-be and new moms on the job while protecting their rights as women and mothers, advocates said.

Faith groups, bipartisan support

And both pieces of legislation were passed with bipartisan support; the PUMP Act was co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska.

Faith-based organizations, including the Center for Public Justice, and religious leaders also supported these policy changes. 

“That (support is) rooted in an understanding that women bear … the vulnerability of pregnancy and if we want to protect the life of children in utero, we need to protect the lives of women who are carrying children,” said Rachel Anderson, of the Center for Public Justice, speaking of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. Anderson also noted that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops supported both measures because the legislation represents a pro-life stance. 

However, while the PUMP Act and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act both indicate progress, more policy battles lie ahead, advocates said. 

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“It’s still not enough. We need to set a minimum standard in this country to help continue to boost women and families’ economic security. We need to pass paid family medical leave,” said Ruth Martin, senior vice president of Moms Rising. 

Calling both the PUMP Act and Pregnant Workers Fairness Act “common sense,” Martin added, “Regardless of party affiliation, we know that voters strongly support these … measures. It was good that the politicians caught up with where most people have been for a really long time.” 

An additional bill, introduced to Congress in early June by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, among a bipartisan group of legislators, aims to bring a permanent end to  baby formula tariffs, in hopes of alleviating one of the factors that contributed to 2022’s headline-making formula shortage. 

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the state Sen. Lisa Murkowski represents. She is a Republican representing Alaska.

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