UPDATE: Stemberg is no longer the CEO of Staples. He vacated his post at the company in 2002. He is the co-founder of the company, as well.
Tom Stemberg, the co-founder of office-supply store Staples, recently complained about the chilling effect on the economy of a provision in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that states that employers must provide a private space that is not a bathroom and adequate break time for mothers to be able to pump milk for one year after the birth of their child. For information on this provision, visit the Department of Labor’s website here.
“Do you want [farming retailer] Tractor Supply to open stores or would you rather they take their capital and do what Obamacare and its 2,700 pages dictates – which is to open a lactation chamber at every single store that they have?” he asked.
“I’m big on breastfeeding; my wife breastfed,” Stemberg added. “I’m all for that. I don’t think every retail store in America should have to go to lactation chambers, which is what Obamacare foresees.”
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), this section of the Affordable Care Act affects approximately 19 million female workers, basically any woman who is not exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s provisions on minimum wage and overtime wages. This essentially translates to hourly workers.
“In 2006, mothers with family income less than 100 percent of the povertyline, with less than a high school-level education, African American mothers, and mothers under the age of 20 were least likely to breastfeed. IWPR’s estimates show that these are the same groups that have the highest rates of coverage under the ACA breastfeeding protections.”
Increasing the rates of breastfeeding (initiation, duration, and exclusivity) in the United States is part of a very important public health goal, which in turn could save as much as $13 billion per year, according to a 2010 study in the journal Pediatrics. It could also save 900 American babies from death each year, the study noted, but Stemberg is clearly focusing on the monetary side of things, so we’ll stick to that. The study, which has been reviewed by numerous independent sources and declared sound and reasonable, also only bases these savings on the US attaining a breastfeeding rate of 50% of babies being exclusively breastfed at age 6 months. Currently, only 12% of US babies fall in this category. Larry Gray, a pediatrician at the University of Chicago, however, notes that it is unfair to shame mothers who do not breastfeed, “because their jobs and other demands often make it impossible to do so.”
So, it would seem that requiring break time and private space to pump at work would be quite effective at increasing breastfeeding rates among a population with statistically low breastfeeding rates, right? I would be very interested for someone to compile how much money it would take for employers to actually comply with this provision, so we could stack it against the $13 billion in savings we could reasonably expect to see (again, let’s not concern ourselves with the 900 saved babies, as Stemberg clearly does not). I suspect that the cost to comply to each business would really pale in comparison to the benefits that we, as a society, could expect to see, but I guess the issue for Stemberg is that it might put a slight ding in his company coffers. And hey, his wife breasfed, it’s not that he’s against breastfeeding; it’s just that if you are not of a sufficiently high enough socio-economic level to have the privilege of either staying at home during the early part of your child’s life, or to be at a level in a company where you probably have a private office and people don’t watch what you do with your time quite so closely and make you punch in and out, well, then maybe breastfeeding is not such a good idea. At least for Staples’ balance sheet.
Let’s talk for a moment, too, about the mocking tone that is implied in the phrase “lactation chambers.” I’d be a bit more inclined to have a serious, respectful discussion about the costs and benefits of a law like this with someone who had not gone and used that term. Because all that terms serves to do is ridicule the whole notion of breastfeeding and pumping, like it’s so silly and embarrassing and bizarre that we need a specially named room, nay, chamber, in which to do it. Not a nursing room, pumping room, mother’s room, mother’s lounge, but a “lactation chamber.” I don’t know about you, but another verb that I readily associate with the word chamber is “torture,” but maybe that was unintentional on Stemberg’s part.
When I went back to work after maternity leave with my first, I was very lucky. I had an office with a door that locked and reasonable, supportive coworkers and bosses. I didn’t stay there long, as I decided I didn’t want to work full-time, and I found a part-time job. I didn’t have my own desk for the two days a week I came in and certainly not a private office. I told them that I would need to pump milk occasionally (and this was when my daughter was just about a year, not a newborn), and you know what they came up with? A ginormous empty office suite with a private bathroom. It used to be the CEO’s office until they moved the headquarters to a different city. Contrast that with the time I walked into a bathroom in O’Hare airport and there was a woman sort of huddled against the wall near the back by a baby-changing station. I sort of looked at her trying to figure out what she was doing, because, honestly, she looked almost suspiciously off–darting eyes, obviously trying to use her body to shield something from my view, and you know, we’re in an airport in post-9/11 times. Yeah, well she was trying to shield her poor breasts, while holding the pump horns to them, from my view, and she kept looking towards people as they came in and away, seeming pretty uncomfortable about the whole endeavor. I tried to look her in the eyes and not tip my head down to her chest and give her an encouraging smile. And to be honest, think for a moment about how glad I was that I did not have to make a choice between doing that every day, several times a day and not feeding my child breast milk.