Nursing mothers get a break, starting now

Staff WriterApril 28, 2010 

  • The federal health care law contains a provision that, effective immediately, requires employers to provide a "reasonable break time" for nursing employees to express milk during the first year of a child's life. Employers also must provide "a suitable place, other than a bathroom," for an employee to pump. The provision excludes employers with fewer than 50 employees if the employer can prove allowing such breaks would "impose an undue hardship."

At SAS Institute, nursing mothers who need to express milk during the workday can go online to schedule a lactation room that features a recliner and soft music.

The Cary company, known for its family-friendly business model, has provided the service for 12 years. Now, all businesses are required by law to offer such a room for nursing mothers. (The recliner and music are optional.)

Way down in the federal health care bill that Congress passed in March is a little known amendment for nursing mothers. Under Subtitle C, called Creating Healthier Communities, section 4207, the bill, effective immediately, requires employers to provide a "reasonable break time" for nursing employees to express milk during the first year of a child's life. Breaks must be given upon request as often as needed. (Mothers who have infants up to six months of age need to express milk every three hours.)

The law also requires employers to provide "a suitable place, other than a bathroom," for an employee to pump. The provision excludes employers with fewer than 50 employees if the employer can prove that allowing such breaks would "impose an undue hardship" to the business.

"Some employers are already doing this," said George Ports, senior human relations advisor with CAI, a nonprofit employers' association with offices in Raleigh and Greensboro.

For those who aren't, it should not be too difficult to implement, Ports said. The room can be a conference room or an empty office, and it should have a lock so that no one can walk in.

Where the law might get tricky is payment, Ports said. The law does not require employers to pay women for pumping breaks. But if an employer allows smokers to take paid smoke breaks and doesn't pay a woman while she pumps, the employer risks breaking discrimination laws, according to Ports.

Miriam Labbok, director of the Global Breastfeeding Institute at the UNC Gillings School of Global and Public Health, calls the new legislation "very exciting."

Industries such as factories or fast-food restaurants, where women are needed on the floor, may have a hard time allowing women to take breaks to pump, Labbok said.

"But it's possible because people do have breaks," she said, adding that UNC-Chapel Hill's campus has eight to nine private rooms for nursing mothers to pump.

Employers scramble

The new legislation is taking some area businesses by surprise.

Dean Ogan, owner of Rocky Top Hospitality, which operates several Raleigh restaurants, including Michael Deans, Hi5 and Bogart's, said he had not heard of the law.

Ogan said he has never had an employee request breaks to pump. But he would provide nursing employees with breaks and a room if asked, he said.

"It's common sense for a caring employer," he said. "I'm a parent. I get it."

Paul Stone, president of the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the group's national arm is poring over the health care law to see how it affects association members. Then, the group will publicize the changes.

"Ninety-nine percent of restaurants have no idea this is in the bill," Stone said. "But to us, this is not a big deal. It's specific as far as the room requirements, but we support employers accommodating nursing moms. It makes sense, and I hope they are doing it anyway."

Other area workplaces, such as Belk, are working to find nursing rooms.

The SAS model

Gale Adcock, director of corporate health services at SAS, said she was providing breastfeeding information to employees 12 years ago and decided the company needed to actually do something, too.

She polled a group of nursing moms, and the first pumping room was created. SAS has a day care on campus, where providers call moms when their babies are ready to nurse, Adcock said. SAS also has two lactation consultants on staff.

The company provides such care, Adcock said, because it's good for the mothers, and it's a business decision that saves money. Half of SAS's employees are women, and the company wants mothers to come back to work after maternity leave, she said.

Plus, breast-fed babies get sick less often, Adcock said, so employees miss fewer days of work and it is less costly to the health insurance plan. And providing a lactation room is easy, Adcock added.

"It's as simple as a room with a lock and a chair," she said. "It's super simple and super cheap, but the goodwill it engenders is priceless."

leah.friedman@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4546

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