Breastfeeding: Your rights in the workplace
A couple of months ago I got a call on our Family Health Hotline from a woman who was approaching the end of her maternity leave and was trying to better understand her rights in going back to work as a breastfeeding mother. She was returning to work at a large tech company and her expectations were low that her employer would be accommodating of a flexible schedule that would allow her to breast-pump. As I scrambled to locate and articulate the legal jargon around this topic, I was glad to discover that the law does protect women in this situation, but I also craved more detail to better guide callers in the future and provide women with confidence to advocate for themselves in the workplace.
It’s recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics that mothers give their babies nothing but breastmilk for the first six months of life, and continue giving breastmilk for at least one year or longer. The reasoning behind this is worth celebrating! Breastfeeding provides significant cost-savings and strengthens the trusting, loving bond between a mother and her baby by increasing levels of oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone.” The cells, hormones, and antibodies in breastmilk make it easier for babies to digest than formula and reduce their incidence of developing respiratory infections, asthma, diabetes, and obesity, among other health conditions. From a mother’s perspective, breastfeeding has also been shown to reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer as well as postpartum depression. Employers also have reason to encourage breastfeeding as research supports it contributes to lower health care costs and absences from work due to caring for a sick child. For more information on the benefits of breastfeeding as well as tips for making the transition back to work while breastfeeding, please visit our “Work and Breastfeeding” resource.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) advanced the rights of mothers in the workplace and the benefits that breastfeeding mothers are required to receive. New health insurance plans (since March 2010) are now mandated to offer women full coverage of a breast pump as well as a range of preventative services and lactation counseling. Breastfeeding is now more accessible to a majority of employed women as most employers are required to provide a space and “reasonable break time” for women to express breast milk or pump during the workday. The space provided must be “shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public.” A bathroom, even if private, is not considered an acceptable location under the Act. Employers can find cost-effective tips on providing time and space to support nursing mothers in a variety of work settings on the Office of Women’s Health Website.
While the Affordable Care Act established a new and improved standard for the affordability and accessibility of breastfeeding, there are still barriers to breastfeeding supplies and support that need to be addressed. For example, while most women can now receive full coverage of a breast pump and lactation consulting through their insurance, this may not apply to Medicaid-recipients in certain states, mothers who are most in need of extra assistance. In this case, it’s likely that the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program can pick up where the law left off and provide women with these resources. Increasing awareness of how the law protects nursing women and how to navigate health and legal systems can help bring our workplaces and communities forward in recognizing the importance of breastfeeding in fostering healthy, happy mothers and babies.
Here are a few additional resources to learn more about breastfeeding and how to access WIC and other food and health programs: