Experts cite benefits of accommodations for breastfeeding

By Joanne Deschenaux Feb 27, 2007
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Even in states that do not require reasonable breaks for breastfeeding mothers, employers will benefit from implementing an accommodating policy, according to Rose Stanley, work/life practice leader at WorldatWork.

Employees are more likely to return to work after maternity leave if they are given regular breaks to express milk and a private, comfortable environment in which to do so, Stanley told HR News. In addition, providing this support for a nursing mother returning to the workforce allows the mother to get her job done as efficiently as possible.

“You can’t do a good job if you are stressed. The more relaxed you are, the more efficient you will be,” Stanley added.

Fastest-growing segment of labor force

Mothers are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. labor force, according to the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee. Approximately 70 percent of employed mothers with children younger than 3 work full time. One-third of these mothers return to work within three months after birth, and two-thirds return within six months.

Although breastfeeding offers proven health benefits for babies and mothers, women often find it difficult to continue breastfeeding once they return to the workplace.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Guide to Breastfeeding Intervention identifies the following common workplace barriers for nursing mothers:

  • A lack of flexibility in the work schedule for milk expression.
  • No accommodations to pump or store breast milk.
  • Concerns about support from employers and colleagues.

The CDC guide stresses that mothers who continue breastfeeding after returning to work need the support of their co-workers, supervisors and others in the workplace. “Individual employers can do a great deal to create an atmosphere that supports employees who breastfeed,” the guide states.

Legislative action

A number of state legislatures require or encourage breaks for nursing mothers. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 11 states currently have laws related to breastfeeding in the workplace: California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.

Employers in California, Illinois, Minnesota and Tennessee must provide reasonable break time and make reasonable efforts to provide a place to breastfeed or express milk, unless the breaks would unduly disrupt operations.

In Georgia, Oklahoma and Rhode Island, the employer may provide breaks. Connecticut and Hawaii do not require breaks for breastfeeding or expressing milk; rather, the mother cannot be prohibited from using her existing breaks. Texas and Washington encourage employers to provide accommodations by designating those who meet certain criteria as “mother friendly” or “infant friendly.”

The NCSL also identifies 27 additional states with broader laws, not limited to the workplace, but specifically allowing women to breastfeed in any public or private location. Those states are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah and Vermont.

In addition, Oregon and Wyoming have workplace-specific legislation pending in the current legislative session. The Oregon proposal, House Bill (H.B.) 2372, would require businesses employing at least 25 workers to provide nursing mothers with half-hour breaks for every four hours worked. Employers would have to make “reasonable efforts” to provide a private spot for nursing mothers, and businesses would be exempt if providing the breaks caused an undue hardship.

Wyoming’s H.B. 105 would require an employer with two or more employees to provide:

  • A flexible work schedule for breastfeeding mothers, including 15-minute breaks every two hours for breastfeeding or the expression of breast milk
  • A convenient, sanitary, safe and private location, other than a rest room, for breastfeeding or the expression of breast milk
  • Access to a clean, safe water source and a sink
  • A convenient hygienic refrigerator

Establishing a policy

“Having a written policy is a great idea,” Stanley said in a Feb. 13 interview. The policy should include provisions for training managers in how to provide support for nursing mothers.

Stanley remarked that the environment the employer provides “doesn’t have to be elaborate and doesn’t have to be big. Something small and quiet is fine. Just to make it comfortable, it is suggested that you supply a table and a chair and electricity to support a breast pump. Having a sink nearby is a good idea.”

As for work breaks, Stanley noted that the regular break schedule—such as three breaks in an eight-hour period—might work fine but suggested that an employer find out from its health insurance carrier what the normal expectations for nursing mothers are and use that in establishing a policy.

She added that a supervisor should allow for some flexibility and should be willing to deal with each employee as an individual.

Finally, Stanley said that an employee returning from maternity leave should keep in mind that not all organizations have even thought about accommodating nursing mothers on their return to work. An employee wanting to express milk so that she can continue to breastfeed should not hesitate to bring up the issue with her supervisor or manager, she remarked.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is senior legal editor for HR News.

Related articles:

U.S. trails other countries in worker-friendly policies, HR News, Feb. 14, 2007.

Family-Friendly University, HR Magazine, May 2002.

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