There are as many women in construction as there are dental hygienists (approx 200,000). Data about tradeswomen becoming pregnant during their construction career is nil, though we can infer that our population reflects the larger population of American women.
The following testimony was provided to me in person by a carpenter in NYC. She was nursing and pumping on a construction site for one year between 2018-2019 with her first child. She offers her experience pumping in the workplace, the many challenges, the staff who came through for her, and her recommendations for enforcing the FLSA law at her rank and file level.
On Workplace Conditions for Nursing/pumping:
"Tradeswomen nursing is the hardest [expletive] ever… the jobs aren't equipped for it...and no one gives a [expletive].
Pumping was the [expletive] worst. I'm glad I pumped for the year mark, but after that I quit it. It was just too stressful and I used my lunch hour and pumped in the bathroom. I washed out my little cups in the trades slop sink. Thank god breast milk has antibacterial properties in itself. My kid is one tough baby.
No fridge for the breast milk, like office people with their break rooms. Sometimes, no outlet to plug into, so I'd have to hand express. Last thing you wanna do is hand express for a half hour when you should be resting your hands because your job is USING YOUR HANDS.
Pumping would suck less if I had a room with a sink to wash the tiny little parts out, and a chair next to an outlet, privacy, and a minifridge. What I did have was disinfecting wipes, a trades slop sink right outside the men's makeshift plywood box bathrooms, pink soap in a re-used Gatorade bottle the Laborers refilled often, an extension cord, and a "private room" next to a huge window on 5th Avenue where I could see office workers across the way. At least no one on my job saw my breasts, but the workers across the street got a good show. One day, while washing the bottles, a male co-worker asked me one day why I was washing out baby bottles on a construction site.
I never got mastitis and I pumped for 6 months successfully. After the year I cut out the pumping session because my baby eats solids now, but I still nurse. Breastfeeding is hard already… construction sites make it [expletive] harder."
On Having Time for Pumping:
"At the time I was breastfeeding, I was working for a company that I worked before I went out on pregnancy leave. My foreman knew I was pumping and returning back from maternity leave. They told the foreman to give me time to get back into the swing of things, too, which was cool. So he told me to take it easy, basically. I didn't need to take it easy. I needed a room to pump in and a ten-minute break in the afternoon to pump.
I never would have asked for extra time. In their heads (and mine, too) it's like extra time equates to money loss. We're not salaried employees. We get paid by the minute. How do you ask for time when you make $100 an hour in wages and benefits? I was told not to waste company dollar chasing down building materials, though I should just stay in one spot installing the materials instead - that materials would be brought to me because I'm too expensive to be walking around. That's some expensive breastmilk. So I used my lunch half-hour and my morning 10 minute coffee break to pump. I'm not opposed to using the lunch hour, just wish they were better prepared to give up a room for pumping.
It was so reassuring and awesome to hear that they were telling the foreman about me coming back from maternity leave and cutting me some slack to get back into the swing of things. I think the nursing issue just went over their heads. Like, they didn't think that may have been a possibility, too.
I wasn't going to ask for extra time either cause y'know how it is out there. It's not like the foremen are told to offer extra pumping time either. Not at all like an office job. Also, I didn't want anyone to really know cause I'm trying to blend in here, y'know?
I had to speak up when I got on site and like make it seem like not a big deal, just requesting a room- I was told to use the "clean" bathroom. Eventually the safety lady came to her senses and said, "okay use this room." Maybe she googled the law or something. I got a room the next day, but it was like bare minimum."
On Getting Some Support
"The only one that gave a [expletive] was the safety lady- she gave me a room to use but it was the room the investors kept their hard hats in and when they came, I didn't have a room. It's not even her job. She went out of her way to consider it a safety issue.
I'm glad the safety person was another woman because that felt safer- having her deal with all that. Also, she was a real hard-***. Like, didn't take [expletive] from no one- real scary lady. But over time she was totally on my side.
At first she made me nervous, but then it was to my advantage that she was a hard-*** cause she knew what I was doing but she also knew I was there to work and give 100%. I think me asking for these things at first kinda bothered her cause she's like old school, I could tell. Probably thought I was there for an easy ride or something. But then, after a while, I could tell she was like on my team, you know? She would say things like, "reminds me of myself when I was young."
At one point, I had a "private room"- it was the project manager's office. I had to kick him out every day when it came time to pump and the first time ever was sooooo awkward. I had to tell him to his face that I was lactating and it was my room to use for a half-hour. And it's [expletive] weird for me, at least, to have to say that. And this [expletive] just brings up a lot, too, as a sexual abuse survivor, etc. Breastfeeding has not been easy for me at all and having to tell random dudes about my bodily functions just...ugggghhhh, SUCKED. Sucks talking about boobs with men, cause that's what I feel like I'm doing- I'm not talking about feeding my baby.
Eventually, the walls came down from that "private" room, cause it was a temporary office. I was left to pump in corners, etc., and then the guys could hear the machine, too. One guy 'joked' it sounded like I was using the firestopping machine. It made me out to be just this "frail mother"- "the pumper."
I'm just glad it's over with. I see pictures of military moms pumping out in the field and I think that's the category we're in, too. The making it work in whatever condition category. I wonder if those women don't take advantage of those accommodations as well. I mean, there's law, that's one thing. But to actually ask for the laws to be followed in an environment that isn't all too welcoming, too- that is another thing. You gotta be real bold. And not mind getting laid off because you're the one that is "trouble." I just wanted to fly under the radar as just another worker."
On Supporting Other Tradeswomen
"I heard this other apprentice is pregnant. I wish I could just, like, hold her hand through it, like be a tradeswoman doula. That's what we need. One specific person that understands- a tradeswoman breastfeeding support counselor. I don't know her, I just know of her, but I also don't wanna impose cause I know how hormonal pregnancy is, and it can be beautiful but also really terrible. Last I heard she was navigating the whole benefits things. But there isn't much help out there for pregnant women.
There's Paid Family Leave in NYS, but it only works if you've worked 26 consecutive weeks for the same employer. And what if you have to suddenly go on leave before the application is submitted? It's just not easy- lots of red tape. And who's with the same contractor steady for six months?
I had to leave immediately because of my nausea. And this was before the new PFL law went into effect, so I didn't get PFL help. I see these women on job sites, kicking butt, working with their baby bumps, but the hyperemesis took me out.
I told this new apprentice about the whole thing and she was just really curious- I could tell she was very young. She has no children yet and told me she's been thinking about how that would work. Y'know- all kinds of people join our union. People coming in with families already started, and people that want to, but feel like they have to choose either career or family. I see these single moms come in and how they handle it and it only takes 9 months to make the baby, that's such a short period...and then all else can resume. Total juggling act, I'm just glad I didn't get pregnant until I had a grasp on things and wasn't still crying on the bathroom floor of a construction site- feeling like a failure covered in insulation. You grow tough skin. And then you have the baby."
On How to Improve Enforcement in Construction
"I wonder how they'd make these policies work for us on site, though. I think the policies that exist are pretty good already, but I just didn't see them going into effect in the workplace. And I don't want to be the one doing it because then my job is in danger. Like, the way we have a set lunch hour and that's just the rule and everyone just knows- they should just KNOW to make appropriate spaces for lactating mothers.
There should be posted notices about nursing and send it to all the supers on every job site. And send them little signs that say MOTHERS' ROOM IN USE that we can put up for privacy- just like the LASERS IN USE signs we have to hang when using lasers. We need more exposure to the issue. Run an ad campaign. Nursing: It's the Law. Put a construction tradeswoman in the ad- an hourly worker.
If there was more talk about it, maybe it would be just normalized, especially during safety orientations- so that it could totally just be a thing on job sites. How are the GCs not asking about this on a form when we fill out our orientation paperwork? I know the mothers at their offices have spaces for sure. I know because I built them while I was I was pumping behind a sheet of masonite on the top of the convectors on the dusty-*** floor.
They have a mavapod for nursing mothers at the airport and at another high-profile job, but I wasn't sent to either of those jobs and I think it's mostly for female project managers that have time to go into those things. And sure it's like- look at what we did- we put a pod here and there, but like what are the GCs doing? Are they asking if there are females nursing during orientation? No one asked me."