Image: Woman breastfeeding
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A little known provision in President Obama’s much-maligned health care bill will for the first time require employers to provide women with breaks and a place to breastfeed their infants.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/31/2011 7:56:19 AM ET 2011-01-31T12:56:19

When Stacey Weiland was a gastroenterology fellow and a new mother she had trouble finding the time or a place to pump breast milk at the Colorado hospitals where she worked, and often ended up in a bathroom stall or just not pumping at all.

Weiland would wear heavy sweaters in order to hide any milk leakage from co-workers and got little sympathy from colleagues who saw her requests to breastfeed as an inconvenience.

“It was like I was asking to go out and smoke,” she recalled.

New nursing law

“The field of gastroenterology is very male-dominated,” she added. “I remember one time I told one of them that I had to go pump, and he thought that I needed to go lift weights.”

Weiland’s story is not unusual. Many working moms find it challenging to continue to breastfeed when they return to work because there is often little employer support and few if any good locations for them to express milk during the workday.

Pumping at work: Tales from the closet floor

But that’s all expected to change thanks to a little-known provision in the still-controversial health care bill signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The Affordable Care Act amended the Fair Labor Standards Act, and for the first time employers will be federally mandated to provide women with breaks and a place to breastfeed.

“My objective is to make the rights under this new law accessible to as many working moms as possible,” said Nancy Leppink, Deputy Administrator of the Department of Labor’s wage and hour division. To that end, the DOL is asking for public comment before it embarks on writing the guidelines for the new nursing law. (The agency is accepting public comment through Feb. 22 via this Web site.)

The new nursing law “will require unique solutions that working moms and employers need to find solutions for,” Leppink explained. “In order for our guidelines to be effective for both working moms and employers, we need to get as many perspectives as possible. We really need to hear from working moms, working dads, and employers, about what challenges this new law presents and how to overcome those challenges.”

Working moms are in a unique position. They can now have input in molding one of the biggest work-life initiatives since the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, instead of just accepting what employers design for them.

“This is a huge step for women’s equality and average women should weigh in,” said Portia Wu, vice president for the National Partnership for Women & Families.

“It’s really really important in this economy because a lot of women want to go back to work, or have to go back to work right away because they don’t have paid leave or maternity leave. Having something like this allows women to keep breastfeeding. The workplace is catching up with the reality of women’s lives.”

And the new law couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin issued a “Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding” because of the health benefits. She acknowledged the difficulties working moms face finding the time and privacy on the job to express milk, and she urged all employers to “work toward establishing paid maternity leave and high-quality lactation support programs.”

Three out of four new moms start out breastfeeding, but the number of women breastfeeding beyond three months has remained low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. (Some breastfeeding advocates say it’s important for mothers to feed beyond three months, but others say it’s not necessary.)

While the nursing law that was part of the health care bill is the first nationally, 16 states now have some sort of legislation on their books that mandates breastfeeding support by employers, and in those states the rate of women who keep breastfeeding to the six-month mark is higher, according to the CDC.

In California, which has had employer breastfeeding mandates since 1998, there has been mixed success in providing women more opportunities to pump at work.

Karen Farley, program manager for the California WIC Association, a non-profit breastfeeding advocacy group for low-income women, said it’s been toughest when it comes to low-income workers who often move from job to job and feel intimidated to ask for a break in order to express milk. While white-collar jobs at major corporations may be more understanding about a women’s need to nurse, historically, she added, “low-wage worksites, including retail or food service, aren’t as accommodating.”

In addition, she continued, “some employers, and employees, don’t even know about the law. But the federal law will do more in helping get the word out.”

There are already many employers that have adopted lactation-friendly workplaces even before the law, especially among those who promote family-friendly work policies.

Mary Rood, 41, a manager of information systems for Prudential, came back to work in October when her daughter was three months old and was able to continue breastfeeding her child until she was six months old. She pumped her breasts at work every day for about 10 minutes, twice a day, in a private room and stored the milk in a refrigerator near her office.

“It allowed me to maintain that bond with her, and I didn’t feel like I was completely abandoning her to daycare and formula,” she said. “It made that transition smoother.”

Her managers, she added, were supportive, and so was the overall culture at Prudential.

But many businesses are concerned about how breastfeeding mandates will impact their bottom lines.

“This one-size-fits-all law, with the rights defined primarily by the subjective needs of the employee, will be burdensome for employers in several circumstances,” said Heather Owen, a partner with Constangy, Brooks & Smith — a national labor and employment firm that represents employers.

“For example, some employers do not have a facility to provide an employee with a private location for the lactation break,” she said. “This is especially true for employees who work outside an office, such as police, bus drivers or construction workers.”

Indeed, there are a lot of logistics that still have to be worked out and the DOL’s Leppink believes public input will help answer a host of tough questions. So how exactly will a bus driver, postal worker or even a working mom who works at a kiosk at a mall find a place to breastfeed?

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“There are examples of folks in those situations that have worked out solutions,” Leppink maintained. “Whether it’s having a space at a mall where they can express milk, or having locations on a route for mobile workers. It’s amazing the creative solutions people come up with once folks start talking.”

The reality is many women returning to work often have had to choose between breastfeeding and their jobs, said Chris Mulford, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee and the chair of a taskforce working with the DOL to help craft the guidelines for the law.

These women ask themselves why they should start breastfeeding if they have to go back to work in three weeks, she noted. Many of them also feel as though they have little power at work and really don’t want to rock the boat by asking for time to breastfeed on the job Mulford, added.

With the new law, she continued, women will begin to feel they have the policies behind them to find the support they need to ask for time to breastfeed.

“We are thrilled with this law,” Mulford said, adding that she was hopeful recent efforts by Republican members in Congress to scrap the entire health care reform bill wouldn’t kill the nursing provision as well.

“It’s time for people to express their opinions. If there are parts of the health care bill they like, they should call their members of Congress,” she said.

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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