If you haven’t heard by now, one of the major provisions tucked away in The Recovery Act was student loan reform, which will now put the federal government in charge of all student loans. Hearing that might make you ask what else is hidden away in the new law?
Well, according to a report by CNN, the law will also require employers to provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.”
Now I’m a big supporter of breastfeeding. (I have two young children and I nursed both of them.) And I’m well-aware of how difficult it can be to find a private, clean place other than a bathroom (which are usually not clean) to feed a crying baby.
But there’s a big gray area between better accommodating nursing mothers at work and a law that requires businesses to provide a separate room for these women.
Too often we pass laws premised on the notion that the workplace is openly hostile to women, and lawmakers position female employees as victims who need government protection. But laws and provisions like this one, intended to protect a certain segment of society, usually end up hurting the group they’re in place to protect.
Take the Pregnancy Discrimination Act: This law, which was put in place to protect pregnant women from discrimination, did not eliminate the problem of bad employers. It simply created a breeding ground for more litigation. Laws like this raise the cost of employment for women and decrease workplace flexibility (for everyone). (You can hear more here.)
Requiring businesses of a certain size (more than 50 employees) to build and maintain a separate space for nursing mothers is another example of Washington putting burdensome regulations in place for one group of people at the expense of another. What about obese employees? We all agree they need to exercise during the day, but should their employers be mandated to provide a gym for them that they can use, for example, during their lunch break?
The best protection for nursing women is a dynamic and flexible work environment that allows women and their employers the most room to negotiate. Ideally we should encourage employees to enter into contracts with their employers that suit the needs of both parties. Perhaps there’s an extra office or cubicle available for use? Or perhaps your employer can find some space in a neighboring office? The fact is companies hire young women because they’re an extremely productive segment of the workforce – and businesses want to keep good employees.
If we allow market forces – rather than opaque government regulation – to determine employment practices, all women will come out ahead.