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Workplace Regulations Provide Relief to Pregnant Women and Breastfeeding Moms

July 14, 2011

New regulations under health care reform, combined with the American with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, or ADAAA, should have a positive impact upon pregnant women and new moms in the workplace—and their employers.

According to the U.S. Labor Department, 80 percent of the more than 26 million working women will become pregnant at some point in their careers. And, according to the website Happy Worker, 55 percent of women with a child under the age of 1 will choose to return to work after giving birth.

The good news for working mothers is that ADAAA guidelines established in March by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission broaden the range of people considered by law to have a disability. For example, a woman who develops a pregnancy-related condition that prevents her from performing her job might be considered temporarily disabled and should be provided with reasonable accommodations, such as telecommuting or shorter hours.

Additionally, the workplace breastfeeding support provision within the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, states that employers shall provide reasonable, unpaid break time and a private, nonbathroom location for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth. Employers with less than 50 employees are not subject to the requirement if it would cause “undue hardship,” according to the health care reform legislation signed into law in March 2010.

How are employers responding to the new regulations? For some, like Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles, Oregon, it’s business as usual.

Celeste Morgan, a recruitment consultant at Mid-Columbia, says the medical center has had private lactation rooms at all of its locations for several years now and was in compliance with health care reform provisions before the regulations were enacted.

“Our focus with ADAAA has always been to make it work,” says Morgan, who is also a board member for the Schaumburg, Illinois-based Certification of Disability Management Specialists Commission. Morgan says that the medical center, which employs 900 people, recently revamped its job descriptions, paying close attention to the physical requirements of each position and documented its process for dealing with disability issues, including those related to pregnancy. Managers receive disability training at least twice a year, and are encouraged to lean on human resources for assistance, she says.

While applauding implementation of the new laws, Dana Marlowe, principal partner with Silver Spring, Maryland-based Accessibility Partners, thinks they are long overdue.

“These regulations are important but are years too late in my opinion,” says Marlowe, whose company helps organizations nationwide implement accessible information technology solutions for disabled people in the workplace. She cites lactation rooms as one example of reasonable accommodations employers should make for pregnant women and new mothers.

“Not every mother has her own office, and using a breast pump in a bathroom stall is not sterile, clean or comfortable,” Marlowe says. “Thousands of new moms are experiencing this every year, and accommodating their needs is inexpensive and should be commonplace wherever there is a workplace with an abundance of new moms. They should be considered as people who may need additional accommodations, because balancing work and life takes its toll.”

The ADAAA regulations should help eliminate some of the stigmas associated with pregnancy, says Stephanie Davis, president of Employment Practices Solutions, a human resources consulting company based in Dallas. She says many women are subjected to discrimination related to pregnancy and motherhood and are treated differently.

“I experienced this first-hand during my own pregnancy,” she says. “We make assumptions about moms and what they are able to do and not able to do; we have to steer people away from this stereotype and give them a chance to do their job without judgment. No one should be treated differently or denied career opportunities because they are pregnant or are a new mom.”

Mothers who are pumping breast milk in the workplace are magnets for unfair treatment, “because it freaks some people out,” Davis says.

Accessibility Partners’ Marlowe agrees. “Lactation rooms are not a perk. Pumping milk is not a pleasant experience, but it shouldn’t be unpleasant either. Minor accommodations and common sense provide the best work environment and leads to more productivity.”

She may be right. The report The Business Case for Breastfeeding, published in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, shows a significant return on investment for employers that provide workplace lactation support, including lower health care costs, absenteeism and turnover rates. Employees whose companies provide breastfeeding support consistently report improved morale, better satisfaction with their jobs and higher productivity, according to the report.

Davis says the ADAAA is helping employers avoid the technicalities associated with qualifying disabilities and put the focus on how they can treat people fairly.

“The more clarity employers have about pregnant workers as a result of ADAAA and health care reform provisions, the better it will be for new moms who want to do their jobs to the best of their abilities,” Davis says. “If you have a pregnant employee, ask yourself: ‘Am I being fair?’ ”

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