(WOMENSENEWS)--Jenny Aguilar and her baby met their goal.
"When I had my son Luke in January 2009, my aim was to feed him nothing but breast milk for a year," says Aguilar, 27, a child-care program administrator in Folsom, Calif. "I knew this would be healthiest for both of us, but I knew many companies discourage breast pumping on the job. Luckily, my boss was not only cooperative, but let me use her office to express my milk whenever needed."
Aguilar's employer, Children's Creative Learning Centers, ranks No. 1 on Working Mother magazine's first "Best Companies for Hourly Workers," a list released in April. It won this honor in part because it encourages employees to breastfeed, which lowers a woman's risk of diabetes, heart disease and breast cancer while protecting her infant from infections, obesity and diabetes.
Since recent health-reform legislation requires companies to permit lactation breaks for U.S. workers, other firms may soon follow suit and establish the same practices that Working Mother has singled out for special praise.
Sixty-one percent of hourly workers such as Aguilar are female, reports the U.S. Department of Labor. And as Working Mother noted when it published its first "Best Companies for Hourly Workers" last month, these wage-earners often have poor benefits, unpredictable shifts and difficulty maintaining work-life balance. Working Mother's list of winners took benefits, training, advancement programs, child care, flexibility programs and paid time off into account.
New health-reform legislation requires companies with more than 50 employees to give hourly-wage workers unpaid lactation breaks on the job.
Passed by Congress in March and signed into law by President Obama in April, the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act," the formal name for health-reform legislation, requires companies to provide "reasonable break times" for pumping breast milk, a private place other than a bathroom in which to do this, and a sink and clean water with which women can wash their hands and breast pumps afterward. The date of implementation depends on the Department of Labor, which must first issue guidelines to clarify certain aspects of the law.
'Work Can Be a Major Hurdle'
"Returning to work can be a major hurdle for new mothers struggling to balance working and breastfeeding without the simple support measures that this law ensures," says Joan Young Meek, M.D., chair of the Washington-based United States Breastfeeding Committee.
Only 33 percent of mothers who work outside the home continue to breastfeed their children at six months, versus 42 percent of stay-at-home mothers, found a 2007 poll by HealthyWomen, a health-information service based in Red Bank, N.J.
The Department of Health and Human Services has set a goal of having 50 percent of women still breastfeeding infants at six months.
"Many women find it impossible to express breast milk on the job," says Loretta McCallister, a spokeswoman for La Leche League International, a breastfeeding advocacy group based in Schaumburg, Ill. "If you're in a crowded bathroom, stuck in a cramped stall and in unsanitary conditions, you won't be relaxed enough for your body to release milk from the upper breast ducts to the lower ducts so your milk can be pumped."
When a nursing woman can't breastfeed or pump milk regularly, her body stops producing milk for her baby.
"Hourly workers are especially in danger of this happening," says Carol Evans, founder and president of Working Mother Media. "They usually don't have fixed schedules, and if they aren't allowed lactation breaks, they either won't be able to breastfeed or they won't be able to go back to work when their children are small."
Winners Provide Private Rooms
Five of the six winners on Working Mother's "Best Companies for Hourly Workers" list offer breastfeeding education to employees and private rooms with locks where they can express breast milk.
Half of the winners offer their workers breast pumps, lactation hotlines, breastfeeding education materials, and on-the-job lactation consultants.
"Since our organization is 95-percent female, since the majority of our employees are ages 25 to 35, and since our mission is to help working families, it makes ideological sense for us to do all this," says Melinda Rogers, vice president of human resources for the list-topping Creative Children's Learning Centers, based in Portland, Ore. "It also benefits us as a company because our employees have high attendance, high satisfaction and low turnover rates."
Marriott International of Bethesda, Md., comes second on the list. It launched a special program last summer to train the managers of its hourly employees about the health benefits of breastfeeding. Workers at the company's 3,400 hotels can also call a 24-hour health hotline and receive additional information and assistance.
Other winners also have policies that are friendly to working mothers. McDonald's USA, based in Oak Brook, Ill., offers free physicals to employees' new babies. Sodexo, of Gaithersburg, Md., provides employees with a free child-care referral hotline. The University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, in Madison, allows 26 partially-paid weeks of maternity leave. And the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, in Albuquerque, gives free vaccinations to employees' infants.
Advocating for "best practices" like these is part of Working Mother's mission. For 25 years, the magazine has published a general "Working Mother 100 Best Companies" list. Its editors have produced white papers on lactation rights and lobbied Congress to pass laws that support breastfeeding. The magazine in 2008 produced a scale-model replica of an ideal nursing room.
New Bill Promotes Change
Twenty-four states already have rules that protect breastfeeding in the workplace, reports the Washington-based National Conference of State Legislatures. Without weakening these provisions, the new health-reform bill will strengthen the laws in other states.
The Department of Labor must define a "reasonable break time" before the new law can be enforced. Several women's rights groups recommend that women be given a 30-minute breast pumping break for every four hours of work.
That's what Jenny Aguilar did at the childcare center where she works. That's what's required by law in her employer's home state of Oregon. And that's what the United States Breastfeeding Committee defines as a "good match between natural breastfeeding cycles and the rhythms of the workday."
Breastfeeding advocates say generous breaks would not only benefit female workers and their children, but help companies, too. "The Business Case for Breastfeeding," a 2008 report by the Department of Health and Human Services, found companies that provide lactation support have lower-than-average health-care costs and higher-than-average productivity, with a $3 return for every $1 invested in lactation support.
Some business-industry groups are nonetheless balking.
"Every additional mandated rule further burdens employers who are struggling to keep jobs afloat," Neil Trautwein, vice president of the Washington-based National Retail Federation, reportedly said after the health-care bill passed.
Breast-feeding advocates say working women--especially hourly wage-earners--have long known how to battle such prejudice.
"When it comes to breast pumping on the job, women have always had to gather health and legal information and show it to their employers," says McCallister of La Leche League. "Women have always had to stand up for this right, but thanks to the new health-reform legislation, they will have more legal enforcement behind them."
Molly M. Ginty (http://mollymaureenginty.wordpress.com) is a freelance writer based in New York City.
For more information:
United States Breastfeeding Committee
"Health Care Reform Boosts Support for Employed Breastfeeding Mothers":
Working Mother magazine's "Best Companies for Hourly Workers":