Happy Mothers Day! Policymakers stalled on breastfeeding in the workplace guidance

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Many a working mother who nurses her baby faces a major challenge upon returning to her job: exactly where will she find the space and how will she find the time to pump milk so she can continue to breastfeed?

As the nation prepares to celebrate Mother's Day, policy makers are stalled about issuing final guidance for employers on how to comply with a new law that requires them to supply hourly workers with "reasonable break time" to express milk for one year after a child's birth, as well as provide a place, other than a bathroom, that is "free from intrusion from coworkers and the public."

Businesses, health organizations and working moms have all weighed in to influence the outcome. But the biggest lobbying groups are on the side of limiting the new law's effect.

While the new requirements, part of the 2010 health care reform law, were immediately effective upon passage in March 2010, the Department of Labor (DoL) put out a request in December of 2010 for information from the public. The agency said it was not going to issue formal regulations at that time, but wanted advice for providing more detailed guidance. In February 2011, both the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the National Restaurant Association weighed in with cautionary requests.

NAM commended the Labor Department for providing only broad advice for employers "rather than issue a restrictive set of regulations that would limit options for both employers and employees." NAM is a powerful lobbying force in the nation's capital, weighing in a long list of issues. It reported spending $8.2 million on lobbying in 2011 alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In its letter, the restaurant association, along with various state chapters, argued that many restaurants do not have adequate space to provide employees to nurse and asked for an exemption for these establishments that would allow them to meet the new requirement by offering bathrooms as a place for employees to pump. It also asked the administration for a statutory fix that would ensure that employers would not be found to violate state and local health and food safety requirements by allowing employees to store breast milk in refrigerators. The restaurant association, which also has a long list of concerns before the goverment, reported spending $2.5 million on lobbying in 2011.

The great majority of the 1,850 comments received by the DoL, available on regulations.gov, expressed strong support for the new requirements. Some came from health organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, but most were comments from women organized by the advocacy group MomsRising and the National Partnership for Women and Families. Many women gave details about the challenges they faced when pumping milk at work for their children.

A typical comment was this one from Erin Brighton: "I had to drag a chair from the choir room into the woman's bathroom in another part of the building. Frankly, it was gross. I was even given part-time pay because I would not be in my classroom and accessible to students during the time that I needed to be pumping or feeding my children if they were brought to school to be fed."

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., has been introducing breastfeeding promotion legislation since the late 1990s, but it was Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who managed to include the new requirements in the 2010 law. Merkley, as a speaker of the Oregon state House in 2007 had also championed an Oregon breastfeeding law.

Together, last August, Maloney and Merkley reintroduced the Breastfeeding Promotion Act, which builds on their success by extending the requirement to provide nursing mothers with space and time to pump beyond the hourly workers covered under the health care law. It also includes a provision Maloney has been championing since 1998, which would amend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit employers from discriminating against workers who breastfeed. So far, Congress has taken no action on the legislation.

The Labor Department did not return numerous requests for comment.