WASHINGTON – Eleven months after Sarah Hamblin gave birth, she had to pump breast milk for her infant from her car using a power adapter.
Hamblin, who was working as a nursing aide at a long-term care facility in Kansas, didn't have a designated area to pump breast milk at that job. She told USA TODAY she was pressured by co-workers to not leave the floor.
She eventually left the job.
Hamblin's experiences are not exclusive to her. Activists and moms told USA TODAY there is a glaring hole in the nation's laws that ensure accommodations and accessibility for mothers to pump breast milk for their infants while at work. Nearly 9 million people aren't covered by the current federal law, according to estimates from the Economic Policy Institute.
Such discrepancies for mothers gained the attention of lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle on Capitol Hill. Now, the PUMP Act, which aims to amend current law and fill the gaps that excludes so many mothers from the time and space to pump, awaits passage in the Senate.
"We strive for America being the best at all things and leading the world, but on this we're not. We're failing," said Tina Sherman, senior campaign director for maternal health at MomsRising, an organization working to achieve economic security for all moms, women and families. She noted that on top of the U.S. being one of the first-world countries to not provide paid family leave, accommodations across the board for new mothers are lacking, especially regarding breastfeeding and pumping.
It is "American exceptionalism at its worst," she said.
PUMP Act: What is it and how will it amend current laws?
The Providing Urgent Maternal Protections to Nursing Mothers (PUMP) Act, which passed the House in October on a largely bipartisan basis, would amend coverage gaps in current law. It aims to ensure all women have access to nursing and pumping spaces while at work.
Brian Dittmeier, senior public policy counsel for the National WIC Association, a non-profit group that provides nutrition and health education to pregnant women and mothers, said coverage gaps exist due to some employees not being included in the 2010 Break Time for Nursing Mothers law, which was part of the Affordable Care Act. That law requires employers to provide break time for employees to express breast milk.
"The original extension of protections in 2010, as part of the Affordable Care Act, was tied to the definition of employee in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)," he said. The difference between those covered and not is "a distinction around overtime pay and eligibility. But there is not really a distinction that applies to whether a worker needs access to a place to pump or not."
Due to how the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law was crafted, some employees who were eligible for overtime, like teachers and nurses, were excluded from protections.
Because of this, women in such fields often have had to pump from their vehicles, supply closets or even bathrooms. Many have faced repercussions for stepping away to pump or felt the need to leave their jobs.
The PUMP Act would require employers with 25 or more employees to provide time and private, clean spaces for nursing mothers. It would clarify when pumping time can be unpaid and would redefine how employees can hold their employers accountable if they do not provide break time and space.
Talk of paid family leave on Capitol Hill shines light on pumping
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been negotiating how, and if, to include paid family leave in President Joe Biden's Build Back Better spending bill, which has shined a light on the United States' lack of care for new mothers.
Advocates have been pushing for lawmakers to include paid family leave in the Build Back Better Act. But, the original 12-week proposal was nixed during negotiations and instead, according to a source familiar with the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity, four weeks is now the current amount being discussed.
The four weeks of paid family leave could help some women who are pumping initially, advocates said. During this time period, many will be breastfeeding or pumping. But the issue lies in providing proper accommodations so they can continue well after their leave ends, they said.
Sherman said that while 4 out of 5 women start out breastfeeding, at "six months postpartum, less than half still are. This goes into asking: Are we setting parents up for success in their breastfeeding journey?"
Elizabeth Gedmark, vice president of A Better Balance, a national nonprofit advocacy organization that combats discrimination against pregnant workers and caregivers, told USA TODAY that in the U.S. "a quarter of all women are returning within two weeks after childbirth to work" due to lack of paid family leave.
And the issues of paid family leave and pumping go hand in hand, advocates said.
Cheryl Lebedevitch, senior advocacy and communications manager for the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee, said it's important to look at "all of the different factors that impact families, and [return] to work is a really big part of that," especially regarding the environment to pump.
On top of returning to work earlier than medically recommended – six weeks is considered the normal length of "disability" leave after delivery, per the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists – if mothers don't have a "supportive work environment" to pump milk, the likelihood of them continuing to do so lessens significantly, Sherman noted.
She also said inconsistencies with pumping and breastfeeding can lead to health problems for the mother, like mastitis, a painful inflammation of breast tissue often caused by blocked milk ducts that can lead to infections. Sherman also said breastfeeding has direct health benefits like preventing breast cancer in mothers and diseases in babies.
The legislation in the House was introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who told USA TODAY that while the country has come a long way in terms of erasing the stigma surrounding breastfeeding, more mothers need accessibility to facilities for breastfeeding.
"Science shows that it made the mother healthier, made the baby healthier. It was medically stronger for everyone," she said.
Current accommodations are dire for many women
Moms who said they were not provided the time or space to pump describe dire conditions.
Hamblin, when pumping from her car, would park in her workplace parking lot "in a way that I was facing a fence or something, where people weren't walking by. But sometimes I didn't even have that option."
Hamblin said because of the stress, she "ended up not continuing my breastfeeding journey. It lowered my supply, so I couldn't breastfeed anymore." She also developed mastitis due to the inconsistent pumping at work.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told USA TODAY that when her second child was a small baby and she was teaching law school in the 1970s, she would pump in her car due to lack of accommodations.
Although things have gotten better since then in some aspects, many women, like those in teaching roles, still struggle. Many teachers, and nurses, are also often women of childbearing age.
Warren said discussing her experience then, and hearing of others, is a "reminder that the working world was not set up for women, generally, and for new moms in particular."
Amber Hookstra, a middle school teacher in Oklahoma, had her fourth baby in February, and reached out to her principal and human resources department to inquire about where she could pump. She was told, "'You can pump in an office or a classroom or the bathroom.'"
"I was beside myself, because you wouldn't eat in the bathroom," she told USA TODAY.
Lebedevitch noted current law requires most workplaces have "private non-bathroom space for breastfeeding workers to pump during the work day," but because of the gaps in the current law, not every workplace provides these spaces.
When creating the prior law that established this, groups like the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee asked what the "minimum threshold" for the "standard of dignity" would be in creating these spaces.
Mothers and activists say they need access to a clean, private room with a chair. The PUMP Act would attempt to expand that to every workplace.
"I can't imagine asking a senator or congressman to sit in a bathroom and make a mixed drink and then drink it," Hookstra said. "That would be bizarre, and nobody would do that. But we've asked [many] moms to do that up 'til this point."
Hookstra said she would pump in her classroom and put a sign on the door.
"It was really stressful because all the teachers and janitors and principals have keys to all the classrooms," she said.
"[Pumping] was never a feeling of comfort. It was always being on edge of: Could somebody walk in? Is this going to be extremely embarrassing?" she said.
Gedmark said through A Better Balance's hotline, they hear similar stories every day from mothers around the nation.
"Workers are flat-out told that they can't breastfeed, are harassed if they try to. Sometimes workers will be told that they could have space and then [it] turns out it's more of a public space," she said.
Due to inconsistent pumping times and waiting, many moms they talk to develop mastitis, like Hamblin, Gedmark said. She said a lot of workers "have their hours slashed or are told 'this isn't going to work.'"
"They are basically forced out of their job," she explained.
Legislation awaits action in Senate
Change at the local level has been happening slowly as mothers have sued their places of work and pushed for change.
For example, in Oklahoma where Hookstra lives, a bill signed by the governor in April is similar to the PUMP Act. It forces schools to allow teachers and employees to take paid breaks to maintain their milk supply.
But change at the federal level is past due, activists say.
The PUMP Act received broad bipartisan support in the House with a vote of 276-149.
In the Senate, it would need at least 10 Republicans joining all Democratic voting senators to land on Biden's desk and bypass a potential filibuster.
Advocates and moms stressed lawmakers shouldn't delay trying to pass the legislation into law. They noted in the 21st century, these experiences shouldn't be happening anymore.
"We as women are expected to have families and have babies, expected to take care of them, but we're also expected to work and help support our families" financially, Hookstra said. "But we're not given the measures or the means to make all of that happen. We're set up to fail."
Gedmark said, "This country has a long way to go to actually providing the legal support that we need to for pregnant and lactating employees, so that you can actually have a career and family, and are not forced to choose."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Breastfeeding moms, advocates push Congress to pass PUMP Act