Provision in health care bill protects nursing mothers

WASHINGTON — Working mothers who still are breastfeeding will get a break — and a place to take it — thanks to a provision that Sen. Jeff Merkley fought to include in the Senate health care bill.

The Oregon Democrat said he would be available to help hammer out the details of legislation, which would require companies with 50 or more employees to give nursing mothers break time and a private space other than a restroom to pump breast milk.

Twenty-four states, including Oregon, already have laws concerning breastfeeding in the workplace, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Merkley’s provision requires employers to provide unpaid breaks for mothers to express breast milk for their nursing children for up to one year after birth. It also requires employers to provide a place “shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public.” It does not pre-empt current state laws that may provide greater protections.

Merkley said the Labor Department soon will start working to define “reasonable” break times and private spaces and to determine how violators might be penalized.

He said several Oregon companies objected and filed for exemptions from the state law, saying it would cause “undue hardship,” but he said all of them ultimately found a way to accommodate breastfeeding mothers.

“So far, not a single company in Oregon has decided it couldn’t figure out a way to make it work,” Merkley said. He said the legislation actually benefits employers.

According to a study by the National Business Group on Health, a nonprofit business health policy organization, creating a breastfeeding-friendly work environment reduces the risk of short- and long-term health problems for women and children, decreases employee absenteeism, promotes an earlier return from maternity leave and increases retention of female employees.

“This has been helpful in retaining good employees who may have been an important part of the team,” Merkley said.