08/11/2010

Good News for Working Mothers Who Nurse Their Babies

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One of the many things AFT members fought for and won as part of healthcare reform is protection for nursing mothers. Hourly workers now have federal law behind them when they need to express breast milk for their babies during the workday.

In July, the U.S. Labor Department published information on break time for nursing mothers, which took effect as soon as the healthcare reform law was enacted in March. Under Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers have to provide unpaid "reasonable break time" whenever a working mother needs it to express milk for up to a year after her child is born. Employers also must provide "a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public."

Although the law applies only to hourly workers—not salaried employees, including most teachers, who are "exempt" from overtime—it does allow states to provide greater protections, such as paid break time, break time for exempt employees, or break time beyond a year after the child's birth.

"We certainly have waited for many years—and quite a few generations of babies—to see this simple protection for nursing mothers," says AFT executive vice president Lorretta Johnson. "Working women provide so much for our families and our communities that it's only right to treat them with respect on the job."

Johnson adds her voice to those of experts like Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the nonprofit Families and Work Institute, who point to research showing that breastfeeding is healthier for babies and, by extension, better for families and employers.

Roughly half of employers now make some provision for nursing mothers, such as a room with a table, a chair and an outlet for a plug-in pump, plus easy access to a refrigerator and sink. About half of the states have laws on breastfeeding in the workplace.

It is not yet clear what the penalties will be for violations or what constitutes a "reasonable" break time; but it is absolutely clear that a bathroom won't do. The FLSA requirement says the location provided must be functional as a space for expressing breast milk, and that even if the space is not dedicated solely to nursing mothers, it must be available when needed for that purpose.

The Labor Department has prepared a fact sheet on break time for nursing mothers. For additional information, visit the department's Wage and Hour Division website or call, toll-free, 866/487-9243). [Annette Licitra, Bill Cunningham]