Reproductive Health

So Far, Health Reform Gives Rights to Nursing Moms

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

For over a year, nursing women have had the right to take breaks to express breast milk during the workday if they work for certain employers. But until both parties can agree on health care reform, working nursing moms have a lot at stake.

(WOMENSENEWS)--OK. You or someone you know had a baby not long ago and there's been a lot of contented, happy, breastfeeding bonding going on.

Maternity leave is ending soon and the alien land of paid employment looms.

If you are worried that your own reentry into the workplace--or that of someone else--will disrupt breastfeeding, you might be right, but you also might be wrong.

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Although an 11th-hour compromise was reached to avoid a federal government shutdown on April 8, the 2012 federal budget plan put forth by House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin clearly shows the GOP's intentions to attack health care reform in whatever way possible.

While the portion of health care reform that offers benefits to nursing women in the workplace is not specifically at issue, Ryan's budget reopens the big battle over health reform.

Until both parties can agree on health care reform, medical insurance rights will remain uncertain. So nursing women and their advocates have a lot at stake in what goes on in Washington in coming months.

In the meantime it's important to understand what the breastfeeding law could mean to you or someone you know.

Don't be embarrassed by what you don't know. As an employment lawyer focused on parents, I'm finding that many people are unaware of this new federal protection.

And whatever the laws, many nursing women give up breastfeeding before they would like because they shrink from pushing an employer to accommodate a law, whether state or federal. But knowing the law is a big start to making the best, healthiest decision for your family.

Immediate Breastfeeding Rights

On March 23, 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as health reform, was signed into law.

Many of its provisions won't take effect for years. But a new breastfeeding right took effect that day, which promises to have a large impact on many businesses, women and children in this country.

Upon signing the bill, the Fair Labor Standards Act was immediately amended to require certain employers to provide reasonable break time and a private place (other than a bathroom) for nursing mothers to express breast milk during the workday for up to one year after the child's birth.

In doing this, the federal government joined 24 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 120 other countries, all of which have laws upholding breastfeeding rights in the workplace. Better late than never.

An employer is affected by the law if it fits either of these two broad categories:

  1. No. 1: Annual sales or measurable business of at least $500,000.
  2. No. 2: A hospital, businesses providing medical or nursing care for residents, schools and preschools and government agencies.

Employees are also covered by the breastfeeding "break-and-space" law if their work regularly involves them in commerce between states (which includes, among other things, producing goods that will be sent out of state or regularly making telephone calls to persons located in other states).

One warning note: if your employer has fewer than 50 employees he or she has a right to claim an exemption based on hardship. However, the Department of Labor will not grant an exemption until after an investigation. So your employer would have to go out of its way to prove why it can't meet the law. And that could encourage compliance.

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Good first step!