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Elizabeth A. Hoffmann: Formula shortage exposes lack of breastfeeding support

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A woman shops for baby formula at Target in Annapolis, Maryland, on May 16, 2022.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images/TNS
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The baby formula shortage continues to frustrate parents who are still paying significantly more for the product — if they’re able to find it on grocery store shelves at all. While President Joe Biden initiated Operation Fly Formula to ship in formula from other countries more than a month ago, a factory at the center of the crisis was shut down again recently due to flooding, causing the supply of formula to plummet once again.

Over the past few months, social media has exploded with posts suggesting that the shortage might spur reluctant parents to embrace breastfeeding. But this advice fails to acknowledge that breastfeeding without supplementing with formula is not an option available to everyone. Many workplaces lack sufficient accommodations for nursing employees who need more accessible spaces for pumping breast milk and a more flexible break time.

In 2010, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) added a provision that requires organizations to provide a private place — other than a bathroom — for lactating employees to pump breast milk and to allow them reasonable break time. My research on workplace accommodations for breastfeeding employees, however, demonstrates that these regulations are not wide reaching enough.

Many workers are not covered by this law because they are salaried employees or fall into other exempted categories. My daughter’s first-grade teacher, for example, worked hard to combine breastfeeding and returning to the classroom after her maternity leave. But she was not covered by this federal law, as many employees are exempted under the FLSA.

Although many states have laws about workplace lactation accommodations that are more inclusive than the federal legislation, employers are excused from complying if the accommodations create a “hardship” for the organization, which further highlights breastfeeding employees’ lack of bodily autonomy.

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Moreover, among the workplaces that do try to accommodate breastfeeding parents — and most do try, at least officially — many organizations’ efforts still fall short.

Breastfeeding employees need both adequate time and accessible, private and clean spaces to express milk. They also need sufficient time to travel to that place, assemble pumping apparatus and relax sufficiently so their bodies can release milk.

Some employers’ accommodations are makeshift spaces in dirty storerooms. Others’ might be welcoming lactation lounges that are located far from work spaces, necessitating travel to and from the lactation room with little break time remaining to actually pump. Workers might have outdoor or traveling jobs — think of that person you passed on your way to work engaged in a city road repair.

For all of these reasons, many breastfeeding parents cannot feed their children without partially supplementing with formula. Both society and the workplace are structured to place nearly all responsibility of parenting on individuals with little support in making their parenting manageable.

As the FDA, formula makers and others mobilize to tackle the current formula shortage, these efforts should be tied to creating more supportive workplaces. Critics who chastise formula-using parents for reliance on non-breast milk should instead look more closely at the reasons why formula is often necessary for many working parents.

Dr. Elizabeth A. Hoffmann is a sociology professor at Purdue University. Her latest book is "Lactation at Work."

©2022 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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