More States Adopt Workplace Breastfeeding Protections

By Michelle Rafter

Mar. 11, 2008

The days of new mothers returning to work while still nursing and needing to hide out in a bathroom stall to pump breast milk are going, going, almost gone.

Three states—Oregon, New Mexico and New York—passed laws that took effect at the beginning of 2008 to protect a woman’s ability to breastfeed or express breast milk at the workplace. That brings to 14 to total number of states with such protections. Similar bills are pending in 12 others, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a Denver organization that tracks state-level legislation.

At the conference, interest in the subject is popular—so popular that a listing of state breastfeeding laws is the most visited page on the group’s Web site, “and we have hundreds of other pages,” says Megan Foreman, a health research analyst for the conference.

Though state laws differ on minor details, most require that companies provide a private space—other than a bathroom stall—for women to breastfeed or pump breast milk, and the time to do it. In Oregon, the new law requires that companies offer employees a 30-minute unpaid break to express breast milk for every four hours worked, and gives employees the option of using paid accrued sick, vacation or other leave to cover that time.

To help companies comply with workplace breastfeeding laws, the federal Health Resources and Services Administration is partnering with local advocacy groups on a national pilot project of a federally developed workplace breastfeeding information kit. The kit, called “The Business Case for Breastfeeding,” includes research on the financial benefits to companies of workplace breastfeeding, instructions for creating nursing spaces, and promotional literature for human resources departments and employees.

Advocacy groups in Oregon and other states currently are seeking companies to test the kit. “We’re going to be selecting 20 employers who’d like to be inspired and supported in implementing the law,” says Amelia Psmythe, executive director of the Nursing Mothers Counsel of Oregon. “We’ll work intensively with them. Beyond that we’re figuring it out,” she says.

While the laws are great news for working mothers, they’re good for business too, says Oregon state Sen. Ginny Burdick, who co-authored that state’s law along with a coalition of employer organizations and breastfeeding advocacy groups. Studies show that breastfed babies are healthier than bottle-fed babies, which means moms won’t miss as much work to stay home with sick kids, Burdick says. And happy working moms are happy employees, she says.

“Whether or not they’re in states with workplace breastfeeding laws, many companies have already implemented policies, according to breastfeeding advocates and others. But putting laws on the books takes the burden off an individual working mom to request accommodations, “so she doesn’t feel so alone,” says Chris Mulford, workplace breastfeeding support committee chair for the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee, a Washington lobby group.

In addition, laws force companies that might never have had a nursing mother on staff to come up with a plan for when and if they do. Small employers or companies with multiple small branch offices or remote sites might not need a dedicated space, “but they have to have a plan,” Mulford says.

Instead of being a burden, supporting workplace breastfeeding can be a company selling point. Two years ago, when Ken Stempson was human resources director at Virgin Mobile, a wireless carrier in Walnut Creek, California, he helped implement a workplace breastfeeding plan after the California state law was passed.

The 150-employee company created a private lactation room out of a small office with a comfortable chair, phone, wireless computer access, locking door and a “Do Not Disturb” sign that could hang from the door handle.

“It had a viral impact,” Stempson says. “We didn’t need to promote it or advertise it. It was instantly received as a benefit.” It also made Virgin Mobile attractive to prospective job candidates, and pregnant employees went on maternity leave knowing that their nursing needs would be met when they came back to work, he says.

Helene Wasserman, a Los Angeles labor attorney with Ford & Harrison who works exclusively with corporate clients, says she hasn’t represented any businesses that have challenged workplace breastfeeding laws for being a hardship, nor does she know of cases where an employee sued their employer for failing to comply.

Michelle Rafter is a Workforce contributing editor.

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