Provision in health care bill protects nursing mothers
By Emily Holden
WASHINGTON — Working mothers who still are breastfeeding will get a
break — and a place to take it — thanks to a provision that Sen.
Jeff Merkley fought to include in the Senate health care bill.
The Oregon Democrat said he would be available to help hammer out the
details of legislation, which would require companies with 50 or more
employees to give nursing mothers break time and a private space other
than a restroom to pump breast milk.
Twenty-four states, including Oregon, already have laws concerning
breastfeeding in the workplace, according to the National Conference of
Merkley's provision requires employers to provide unpaid breaks for
mothers to express breast milk for their nursing children for up to one
year after birth. It also requires employers to provide a place
"shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the
public." It does not pre-empt current state laws that may provide
Merkley said the Labor Department soon will start working to define
"reasonable" break times and private spaces and to determine how
violators might be penalized.
He said several Oregon companies objected and filed for exemptions from
the state law, saying it would cause "undue hardship," but he said all
of them ultimately found a way to accommodate breastfeeding mothers.
"So far, not a single company in Oregon has decided it couldn't figure
out a way to make it work," Merkley said. He said the legislation
actually benefits employers.
According to a study by the National Business Group on Health, a
nonprofit business health policy organization, creating a
breastfeeding-friendly work environment reduces the risk of short- and
long-term health problems for women and children, decreases employee
absenteeism, promotes an earlier return from maternity leave and
increases retention of female employees.
"This has been helpful in retaining good employees who may have been an
important part of the team," Merkley said.
Amelia Psmythe, the director of the Breastfeeding Coalition in Oregon,
said most employers can easily implement this legislation.
"Accommodating the temporary need of a small segment of the work force
is much easier than accommodating absences due to illnesses of the
worker or the employee's child," Psmythe said. "Breastfeeding is a
natural and obvious outcome of pregnancy, and in a society where the
majority of women are returning to work, having a way to accommodate
continued breastfeeding is an obvious next step."
Psmythe said working mothers should not be required to pump breast milk
in a restroom.
"It's not appropriate to prepare the baby's food in an unsanitary
place," Psmythe said. "A bathroom stall is not somewhere any of us would
eat our lunch, and it's not an appropriate space for a woman to express
her baby's milk."
The Oregon Republican Party supports mothers' rights to work, but it
opposes new mandates that create problems for businesses, said
communications director Greg Leo.
"Businesses have enough burdens already," Leo said. "We just put major
new burdens on them with the health care bill."
He said employers have already adapted to similar state legislation, so
the measure won't change much for Oregon businesses.
"Oregon businesses are very understanding of the needs of women in the
workplace," Leo said. "The women's work force is very important to
businesses, and it's important that we accommodate the needs of working
Merkley started lobbying for breastfeeding legislation after an
advocate approached him while he was a state representative. Oregon
passed its law in 2007 while he was state House speaker. Merkley said
the issue resonated with him because his wife, a nurse, had trouble
continuing to breastfeed after she returned to work. He said the burden
of asking a manager for flexible break times and privacy is stressful
and results in many mothers not breastfeeding.
"It was that experience, in knowing how well this had worked in Oregon
and how important this is to the health of babies and mothers, that I
wanted to advocate it here," Merkley said.