Washington, DC – Today, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) wrote a letter to Tom Stemberg, co-founder and former Chief Executive Officer of Staples Inc. regarding his recent public statements about the “Reasonable Break Time for Nursing Mothers” breastfeeding provision in the health care reform law. In the letter, Merkley and Maloney, co-authors of the provision, address Stemberg’s concerns about the impact the new law has on the business community and the benefits it provides for the health of nursing mothers and their families.
“These federal requirements are modeled after a state law in Oregon that requires employers, including Staples, to make similar accommodations for their employees,” Merkley and Maloney wrote. “The Oregon law provides a hardship exemption for businesses that cannot find a way to establish a specific place for mothers to express milk. It is interesting to note, however, that not a single Oregon business, including Staples, has chosen to take that exemption. All have found a way to make this work for their nursing mother employees.”
In recent comments reported by CNS News, ThinkProgress, and other media outlets, Tom Stemberg claimed the new health care law would force retailers to create “lactation chambers” instead of opening new stores. The breastfeeding provision requires employers to provide “reasonable break time” to pump milk at work, as well as “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and from intrusion from coworkers and the public,” for hourly employees. Nowhere in the law does it require companies to create a designated, full-time room or “chamber” for nursing mothers.
In August of last year, Merkley and Maloney introduced the Breastfeeding Promotion Act of 2011, which would expand the requirement under current law for employers to provide break time to express breast milk to include salaried workers. The bill would ensure that more working mothers can continue to breastfeed their babies after they return to work, providing health benefits to their children. The Breastfeeding Promotion Act reflects elements of a 2007 Oregon law passed under Merkley’s leadership to ensure workers have private areas and breaks to pump during the workday. This legislation would also protect women from discrimination for exercising their rights under the law.
The text of the letter is below.
February 21, 2012
Highland Capital Partners
Managing General Partner
One Broadway, 16th Floor
Cambridge, MA 02142
Dear Mr. Stemberg,
We write regarding the public comments you recently made concerning a provision of the health care reform law that requires employers to provide breastfeeding employees, who are hourly workers, with unpaid “reasonable break time” and a private place to express milk. As the members of Congress who authored the provision included in the reform bill, we would like to address some of your concerns about the law’s impact on the business community and clarify its intent.
The “Reasonable Break Time for Nursing Mothers” provision requires employers to provide a reasonable, unpaid break time for women to express breast milk for their nursing children for one year after the birth of a child. Although an employer is required to provide a private place for nursing mothers to use, shielded from the view of co-workers or the public, there is no requirement that an employer build or maintain a permanent space. Moreover, these requirements do not apply to businesses with fewer than 50 employees if it imposes an undue financial hardship on the employer.
Similar state laws are already in place and have been embraced by both public health advocates and the business community. In fact, these federal requirements are modeled after a state law in Oregon that requires employers, including Staples, to make similar accommodations for their employees. The Oregon law provides a hardship exemption for businesses that cannot find a way to establish a specific place for mothers to express milk. It is interesting to note, however, that not a single Oregon business, including Staples, has chosen to take that exemption. All have found a way to make this work for their nursing mother employees.
Often, business owners find that providing these basic accommodations for breastfeeding mothers provides a good return on investment. Companies report that they are more successful at retaining and recruiting skilled employees and experience better employee retention rates, reduced sick time, and even lower health care and insurance costs. In an effort to help communicate to the business community the benefits of accommodating breastfeeding mothers, the Department of Health and Human Services provides a resource called The Business Case for Breastfeeding on its website. The information includes data that highlights the savings and benefits to businesses who have instituted lactation support programs for their employees.
Finally, the public health benefit of supporting mothers who would like to breastfeed their infants is great. The health benefits of breastfeeding have been well documented and a recent study found that the U.S. could save $13 billion per year in unnecessary medical expenses if 90 percent of new mothers nursed their children exclusively for six months. The savings occur because breastfeeding has been found to significantly reduce sudden infant death syndrome, gastro intestinal disease related to low birth weight, ear infections, respiratory tract infections, leukemia, and childhood obesity. Studies also show that the health of the mother is improved by breastfeeding. The overall result is that mothers use fewer sick days for themselves or for their children’s illnesses, to the benefit of the family and the business.
This breastfeeding amendment was proposed during a public televised session of the mark up of the Affordable Care Act in the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. It was supported by statements from both Democrat and Republican members and was adopted unanimously by the committee.
If you would like additional information, we would be happy to meet with you or to arrange for experts to share their findings from states that were early adopters of these concepts.