Spokane Journal of Business

Finding time for breast-feeding in the workplace

Area agencies try to support both employees, employers

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-—LeAnn Bjerken
Briana Loveall, a student with Eastern Washington University’s Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program, holds her daughter, 5-week-old Clarke. Loveall says she’ll work with her professors in the fall to schedule breast-feeding breaks.
-—LeAnn Bjerken
Kristine Brewer, left, and Jane Hardesty are with Spokane County’s WIC program. Brewer says breast-feeding in the workplace is especially hard for low-income mothers.

For many Spokane-area mothers, returning to work also means finding both the time and privacy to be able to breast-feed their newborn, or to express breast milk during work hours. 

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent Breast Feeding Report Card, released in 2013, showed that 77 percent of new mothers were breast-feeding their babies, up from 71 percent a decade ago. Of those, almost half were continuing to do so for at least the recommended six months.

The CDC lists the ability to accommodate breast-feeding as beneficial for both mothers and their employers in terms of improved productivity and staff loyalty. Additional listed benefits include an enhanced public image of the employer, as well as decreased absenteeism, health care costs, and employee turnover. 

Despite those benefits, some industries still might find it a challenge to provide for breast-feeding in the workplace. Several organizations in the Spokane area offer resources and assistance to breast-feeding mothers looking to return to work. They include the Spokane Regional Health District, the Women Infant Children nutrition network, statewide organization WithinReach, the Spokane County Breastfeeding Coalition, and the international nonprofit La Leche League advocacy group. 

Kim Papich, public information officer for the Spokane Regional Health District, says the majority of mothers that the agency works with are low-income women who come to the district through the Women Infant Children nutrition network. 

“We begin by talking through many of the suggestions listed in The Business Case for Breastfeeding (program),” she says. “It’s an excellent place to start for both employees and employers, so they can more easily develop solutions together.” 

The Business Case for Breastfeeding is a program designed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health that seeks to help educate employers about the value of supporting breast-feeding employees. 

The program offers informational tools and guidance to help provide worksite lactation support and privacy for mothers. Resources also are available for lactation specialists and health professionals working to educate employers in their communities.

According to the United States Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, as part of the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are required to provide breast-feeding employees with “reasonable break time” and a private, non-bathroom place free from intrusion to express breast milk during the workday. 

Employers are required to provide this service up until the child’s first birthday. The requirements are part of an amendment made to the FLSA in 2010, as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. 

However, only employees who aren’t exempt from the FLSA’s overtime pay requirements are entitled to breaks to express milk. Accordingly, employers with fewer than 50 employers aren’t subject to the FLSA break requirement if compliance would impose an undue hardship or interfere with their workplace structure.

Whether compliance would be an undue hardship is determined by difficulties or expenses of compliance, in comparison to the size, financial resources, nature, and structure of the business. The number of employees includes all workers regardless of work site, so a franchise of a larger business with only 20 employees on-site does have to comply with this law. 

However, Papich says because of some of those exceptions, mothers still can be at a disadvantage if their work type doesn’t allow for infants in the workplace, nearby child care, long enough breaks, or a private space. In addition, most low-income mothers find themselves financially obligated to return to work as soon as possible, and have few opportunities to search for an employer that is better able to accommodate their needs, she says.

Papich says the health district is working to conduct a survey analysis of local businesses in hopes of creating a community initiative to support breast-feeding friendly workplaces. 

“We’re not sure what this might culminate in yet, but it could be something like an accreditation or certification that acknowledges businesses in Spokane who meet the criteria,” she says. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics lists breast-feeding as being beneficial to the physical health of both mother and infant, as well as strengthening mothering instincts and creating a bond between the two.  

While breast-feeding is widely considered the healthiest option for mothers, pumping milk does take time. Additionally, if a mother isn’t allowed enough time to express milk, her body may stop producing enough to feed her child.

Papich says the health district has been trying to get area businesses to comment on workplace solutions for employees who breast-feed, but so far few seem inclined to talk. 

“Unfortunately, it still seems to be an uncomfortable topic, so we’ve been trying to conduct more one-on-one interviews to make it easier for employers to provide feedback and have a voice in the process,” she says. 

Papich says that lack of feedback and recent employee turnover within the health department have kept the district from being able to compile a list yet of area employers that are designated as infant friendly.

“The majority of businesses we have surveyed in the area so far don’t seem to have any breast-feeding policies in place,” she says. “The good news is that we can help provide them the resources to start developing one.”

While local data hasn’t been generated yet, Washington is one of 49 states that allow breast-feeding in public places, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The organization also lists Washington as one of 29 states that dictate the act of breast-feeding or expressing milk is not classified as indecent exposure, and one of 27 states that have additional laws relating to breast-feeding in the workplace.

According to the Washington state Legislature, employers are allowed to use the designation of “infant friendly” on promotional materials, provided they follow certain requirements. 

These requirements include flexible work scheduling, including scheduling breaks and permitting work patterns that provide time for expression of breast milk, and providing a convenient, sanitary, and safe location allowing for privacy while breast-feeding or expressing breast milk. 

The location also must provide a water source with facilities for washing hands and cleaning breast pumping equipment, and the workplace also must offer a convenient and hygienic refrigerator for the mother’s breast milk. Employers seeking infant-friendly status must submit their draft policies to the Washington state Department of Health for review and approval.

Papich says some industries seem to find it harder to accommodate those requirements, particularly environments like retail, and fast food restaurants, mostly because of the type of work the jobs demand as well as limited space. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers some solutions for various industries on its website, most of which involve improvising to create quiet spaces, or adjusting schedules and break times to better support mothers who breast-feed. 

The Washington Restaurant Association also provides information specific to breast-feeding within the restaurant industry, as well as suggestions for how employers can help their customers to feel comfortable breast-feeding within food establishments. 

WRA communications advocacy manager, Stephanie Davenport says that while some 84 percent of state restaurants are small businesses that might be challenged to find a breast-feeding room for an employee, state law allows for mothers to feed their babies in any public space, including restaurant dining rooms. 

“We believe that our industry does its best to care for its employees and values them. We have seen restaurant owners defend employees when patrons express discomfort or dissatisfaction,” says Davenport. “It is our policy and the policy of our members to explain that Washington state has laws that support a mother’s choice to breast-feed in public, and offer to move the patron to a different area.”

She says the association also encourages members to pursue the designation of “infant friendly” workplace from the Washington state Department of Health, by providing flexible work schedules, including breaks and permitting work patterns that provide time for the expression of breast milk.

Kristine Brewer, a registered dietitian and lactation consultant for Spokane County’s WIC program and a member of the Spokane County Breastfeeding Coalition, agrees that workplace breast-feeding is especially hard for low-income mothers. 

“We’re seeing them return to work quite early, at a time when they’re still learning to care for a newborn, so it can be really hard for them,” says Brewer. 

“Many are the main breadwinners for their family and can’t afford to take additional time off,” she says. “Some don’t own a car, and can’t easily travel to feed their child or use it as a private place to breast-feed or pump milk.”  

Brewer says all six Spokane-area WIC locations offer free breast-feeding classes, either weekly or monthly. The program also helps women obtain breast pumps and provides breast-feeding consultations, support groups, and weight checks for newborns, along with other hands-on support services. 

Briana Loveall is one Spokane-area mother who says she has found WIC to be a helpful resource for information and services. 

“They go so far beyond just providing assistance with basic food and formula supplementation,” she says. Loveall says initially she was told if she needed a lactation consultant, she would have to return to the hospital or pay out of pocket for a home visit. WIC was able to provide her with contact information for a lactation consultant who works onsite at an area WIC office and also does home visits for free.

As a current graduate student in the Master of Fine Arts, Creative Writing program at Eastern Washington University, Loveall says she was fortunate to give birth near the last day of the university’s spring quarter, so her classes weren’t disrupted. However, when she returns to classes in the fall, she will have to work with her professors on scheduling breast-feeding breaks. 

“Because I have supportive teachers I’m not as worried about it as I could be, but I know many other students may not have the same support or opportunities that I do,” she says. 

Prior to starting graduate school, Loveall says she was working for Providence Medical group, a work environment that she says she knew to be very supportive of breast-feeding and pumping. 

“If I intended to go back to work with an infant, how my prospective employer supported me as a breast-feeding mother would definitely impact my decision of whether to work there or not,” she says. “However, many women don’t have the luxury of turning away a job just because it doesn’t support breast-feeding. I’m lucky that I can put the health and bonding of my baby over the necessity of a second income.”

Lactation consultant Jane Hardesty is also a member of the Spokane County Breastfeeding Coalition, and serves as a breast-feeding peer counselor at WIC.

 She says for mothers looking to return to work, communication with their employer is key. 

“Many employers when approached are very supportive of wanting to find solutions—not just because it’s the law, but because they recognize how important it is,” she says. “Those employers who are making it work help mothers to feel valued as employees and supported in their health choices.” 

Hardesty says the Spokane County Breastfeeding Coalition again plans to participate in World Breastfeeding Week, hosting a celebration and walk event the first week of August. 

This year’s event, Saturday Aug. 6, includes a walk starting at 10 a.m. at Riverfront Park’s Red Wagon. Hardesty says participation isn’t limited to nursing mothers, rather all supportive community members are encouraged to attend. 

Following the walk, breast-feeding mothers are encouraged to join in what is called the Big Latch On, a simultaneous international event where groups of breast-feeding women come together at registered locations to all latch on their child at the same time. The Big Latch On is an effort to bring attention to community efforts to provide ongoing breast-feeding support and promotion.

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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