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One year after ACA, breast-feeding workers experience ‘sea change’
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Working mothers have long told stories about the difficulties of providing breast milk to their babies while holding down a job.
Employers were stingy about giving women time to use their breast pumps at work. There was no private place to pump, except a bathroom. There was the question of where to refrigerate milk and sometimes disapproving looks from co-workers who disliked seeing breast milk in the employee fridge.
While it’s still a challenge, things are getting easier, women say, as a provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Affordable Care Act (ACA), to promote breast-feeding enters its second year.
The ACA requires employers covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act to provide reasonable time for mothers with babies under a year old to pump at work—two to three times a day during an eight-hour shift, which may be unpaid if other employees get unpaid breaks. The company must offer a clean, private place to pump that is not a bathroom.
And most insurers must cover the cost of a pump, which can run about $300.
“It’s such a sea change,” said Gina Ciagne, vice president of health care and media relations at Lansinoh, an Alexandria, Va.-based lactation products company. “For so many years, the burden has really been on the mom. It was up to her to figure it out, to negotiate with her employer.”
Ciagne said HR managers can initially view the law as burdensome, but they may later realize the company will benefit from a more productive and loyal workforce.
“It’s a really nice benefit,” said Amanda Bialek, a Los Angeles-based public relations employee who has an 8-month-old son. “Wisely, the government realized that a lot of ladies continue to breast-feed after they return to work.”
But Bialek acknowledged that she is lucky to have an especially accommodating workplace. She can take advantage of a conference room with a lockable door, and her fellow employees aren’t spooked by seeing containers of breast milk in the fridge.
Women in other work environments face more difficulty, said Joy Kosak, whose company, San Francisco-based Simple Wishes, manufactures a special bra for hands-free breast-pumping.
The new law is indeed a boon for women, but “unless there’s a very vocal mom, a whistle-blower, there’s no way of monitoring” compliance, Kosak said, adding that many working women aren’t even aware of the federal regulations.
“The biggest complaint I hear [from women] is that they have to run down five or six floors to a lactation room or book it weeks in advance,” she said.
In January 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of a Pennsylvania woman who said she was denied a clean place to pump, harassed by co-workers and reassigned to other shifts that interfered with her pumping schedule.
And there are loopholes in the law that mean not all nursing women and companies are covered, said Nancy Mohrbacher, author of Breastfeeding Made Simple (Newman MD, 2010). Salaried women in exempt positions that don’t pay overtime are not covered, she said. And small businesses can apply for a “hardship” exemption to the law—although Mohrbacher emphasized that the burden is on the employer to prove hardship.
But most employers, Ciagne said, will end up saving money through lower turnover and less absenteeism if they accommodate breast-pumping mothers.
“It’s really is win-win” for the women and their employers, she said.
Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
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