Health care reform brings workplace changes for nursing mothers

July 8, 2010
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At the Grand Rapids headquarters of the Christian Reformed Church in North America is a small room with a very special purpose.

The 8-by-5-foot room has a comfortable chair and ottoman, a table, a small refrigerator — and an electric breast pump, Director of Human Resources Michelle DeBie said.

“Employees began to inquire whether there was the possibility of getting a lactation room on-site,” DeBie said. “One of the women who has been an advocate for us getting this had said that it would speak volumes, in terms of providing this access.”

And now, it’s the law: With the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — aka health care reform — came an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Companies with at least 50 employees are required by the laws to provide hourly workers with a private, clean space — not a bathroom — and reasonable time for nursing mothers to express breast milk.

The provision went into effect with President Obama’s signature in March.

“It’s just not being enforced yet. They are still working out the details of what does this mean,” said Peggy Vander Meulen, program director for Strong Beginnings, Kent County’s federal Healthy Start program. Those details include what is meant by the terms “reasonable time” and “employee,” as well as a determination of penalties.

But as an advocate for feeding babies the natural way, particularly as a tactic to reduce minority infant mortality in Kent County, she said she welcomes the new law.

“We were already trying to promote lactation support services among businesses here in Kent County,” she said, noting that Michigan is one of six states without a law protecting a woman’s right to nurse her baby. The only pertinent state law prevents nursing women from being charged with indecent exposure.

U.S. Department of Labor statistics indicate that 56.6 percent of women with infants under 1 year participated in the labor force in 2009.

While some 75 percent of women start out nursing their babies, that drops to just 11 percent by the time the baby is 6 months old, Vander Meulen said. Healthy Kent 2010’s goal is to have 25 percent of babies still nursing at 12 months. “Returning to work is a major barrier,” she said.

Vander Meulen served as a consultant as the CRC headquarters developed its lactation room and even helped to land a grant to pay for the electric pump.

“We have a lineup of other businesses who have expressed interest in talking with us and learning more about this,” she said. “We are here and willing to work with businesses to help them institute lactation programs.”

In “The Business Case for Breast-Feeding,” published last year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency said support for nursing mothers helps retain experienced employees, reduces sick time taken by mothers and fathers to care for ill children and lowers health care costs:

  • According to a 1995 study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, mothers of bottle-fed infants had as many as twice the number of one-day absences as mothers of breast-fed babies.

  • CIGNA studied 343 employees who participated in a lactation support program and found it resulted in an annual savings of $240,000 in health care expenses, 62 percent fewer prescriptions and $60,000 savings thanks to reduced absenteeism.

  • Mutual of Omaha found its lactation support program supported a retention rate of 83 percent among its maternity work force compared to the national average of 59 percent.

Vander Meulen said that during the first year, the return on investment is flat but increases as time goes by and with the size of the business.

“We’ve got some pointers on how to approach male bosses and supervisors on this,” she added. “They may say, ‘I’m afraid if I mention the word breast-feeding, I’m going to get attacked by a sexual harassment suit.’ We can talk about how they can deal with that.”

At the Christian Reformed location, 2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE, DeBie said the percentage of the 200 employees who use the lactation room is low.

“It was a great addition,” she said. “We’ve seen it as very beneficial. It’s definitely enhancing the work experience.”

The website for “The Business Case for Breast-Feeding” is www.womenshealth.gov/breastfeeding/programs/business-case/

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