TULSA, Okla. — Stephanie Conduff just wants some privacy, please.
When the Cherokee Nation citizen returned to work after the birth of her daughter, she quickly learned that finding a spot to breastfeed or pump milk was a challenge, especially if she did not want an audience.
“I had a distracted eater, so I always wanted a space away from others,” Conduff said. “I also don’t want to pump in front of people. It’s just one of those awkward things in life. I want a private, lockable space after having people walk in on me and having to ask men to unplug their cell phone chargers in airports so I could pump.”
Those experiences led Conduff and her mother, Elena, to launch Leche Lounge, a start-up business that manufactures and installs portable lactation suites for public spaces.
With an assist from the New Mexico Community Capitol’s Native Entrepreneur in Residence Group, the Tulsa-based LLC cut the ribbon on its new office space on Aug. 3 after more than year of design tweaking and vendor searching.
According to a 2013 Congressional study, less than one-third of all manufacturing positions are held by women. That lack of diversity presented a curveball for Conduff while trying to get Leche Lounge to market, as several male vendors regularly ignored her experiences as a working nursing mother, disregarded her designs and instead told her how the product should be made to accommodate nursing women.
For example, Conduff’s plans for a stationary seat, in-unit ventilation system, a solid door and a roof were often subject to immediate pushback or simply set aside altogether during the construction phase. One local vendor went so far as to shove its finished prototype out on to the loading dock after completely disregarding Conduff’s specifications for materials, telling her to pick it up before the close of business that day.
“When you’re all in and bootstrapping a project like we are…you start to really get picky about who you want to work with and who you trust to work with,” she said.
Eventually, Conduff found local business owners who were willing to listen and collaborate with her. Working with another Native-owned company, Parks Custom Cabinets in nearby Chelsea, Oklahoma, Leche Lounge is now able to turn out a new unit each day.
A suite can be purchased or leased starting at $10,000. The standard Leche Lounge unit comes with a bench, a hospital-grade double electric breast pump, a USB port, cleaning wipes, a smoke detector and a mirror to help with clothing adjustment after pumping. Each unit also has a lockable wood sliding door and a ceiling to minimize interruptions or unwanted onlookers.
Two sizes are currently available with the larger one big enough to comfortably accommodate a wheelchair. Customizable options are available, such as color schemes matching the office’s décor or having a unit without a pump.
Leche Lounge’s expanded roll-out comes as the number of lactation discrimination lawsuits continues to increase, climbing 800 percent in the last decade according to a 2016 report published by the University of California’s Hastings College of Law.
The spike is partially attributable to recent changes in federal law to better accommodate lactating working mothers. In 2010, an amendment to the Fair Wage and Labor Standards Act was passed in conjunction with the adoption of the Affordable Care Act, which requires companies with 50 employees or more to provide reasonable breaks and a private place for a nursing mother to pump breast milk until her baby’s first birthday. While the space does not have to be a permanently designated “pump room,” the law specifically states that a bathroom does not count towards meeting that requirement.
Smaller companies may receive an exemption from the space requirement, but only if they can show the Department of Labor that making those accommodations would create an undue hardship.
However, a national study conducted over a two-year period by the journal Women’s Health Issues found that only 40 percent of respondents had access to both a private space and sufficient break time to express breast milk.
“A lot of women will return to the workplace and not have accommodations,” Conduff said. “Instead of making an issue to HR, they’ll just think, ‘OK, I have to choose between feeding my child the way I feel compelled to or working. I’ll just leave.’”
Leche Lounge has already landed a partnership with Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences to install a suite on its Tulsa campus. It has also installed a unit at the country’s largest casino, the Chickasaw Nation’s WinStar Casino and Resort in far southern Oklahoma.
According to Conduff, talks are underway with more than 40 additional potential clients, including military bases, universities, airports and casinos – both tribal and non-tribal. There have also been conversations with WIC offices to help get the word out to working breastfeeding mothers.
“We’re looking at spaces that can accommodate as many women as possible,” she said. “You can’t control for all women…but we do know that some are leaving the work force because they’re having to choose between their job and breastfeeding their child.”