New Breastfeeding Employee Rights

Buried somewhere deep inside the federal health care bill passed by Congress in March of 2010 is an amendment that treats nursing moms, but not too many people are aware of its existence. The amendment appears under Subtitle C and is called Creating Healthier Communities, section 4207.

Upon Request

This bill, which went into effect immediately, obligates employers to give nursing mothers "reasonable break time" so that they can express milk during the first year of their child's life. These breaks are to be provided upon request as often as the need arises. Mothers of infants under the age of 6 months need to be able to express their milk every three hours.

In addition, the law requires employers to make available "a suitable place, other than a bathroom," in which an employee can pump in comfort and cleanliness. Employers with fewer than fifty workers are excluded if they can prove that providing these nursing breaks would "impose an undue hardship" to their businesses.

While some employers are already providing such accommodations to their nursing employees, others have yet to comply. But for large businesses, making this work shouldn't be a problem. An empty office or a conference room should suit just fine as long as the door can lock so as to provide working mothers with privacy.

Sticking Point

But there's a sticking point. There always is, isn't there? Here goes: The law doesn't force employers to pay women for their time spent pumping milk. However, if an employer allows workers that smoke to take paid smoking breaks, but fails to pay a woman for time spent pumping milk, the employer takes the risk of breaking the laws against discrimination.

Miriam Labbok, who directs the University of North Carolina's Global Breastfeeding Institute at the Gillings School of Global and Public Health, said that this new legislation is, "very exciting."

Labbok adds that it may be hard for certain industries to provide these breaks, for instance jobs in which women are needed on the floor, such as in factories or at fast-food restaurants. "But it’s possible because people do have breaks," she said, commenting that Chapel Hill campus of UNC has eight or nine rooms available for this use.

Cost-Saving Measure

Companies who already provide pumping breaks and rooms for their nursing employees believe that both the mothers and the company will benefit from this provision. They see it as a business decision that is a cost-saving measure. The company wants new mothers to come back to work after they take off for maternity leave. It's easier than training new employees. Also, breastfed babies stay healthier, so employees miss fewer work days to tend sick children. That means fewer costs for health insurance plans, too.

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