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Breast-feeding: Develop wise policy for staff, customers

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in Discrimination and Harassment,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources,Maternity Leave Laws

With half of new mothers returning to work within three months of giving birth, breast-feeding has become a hot workplace issue.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says companies can improve their bottom line by making it easier for moms to continue breast-feeding. The benefit: Fewer absences for both parents.

Since the mid-1990s states have stepped in to encourage or even require companies to make it easier for lactating mothers.

Three states, Hawaii, Minnesota and Tennessee, now mandate that employers accommodate breast-feeding mothers at work. In other states, employers that meet certain criteria may designate themselves as "mother- or baby-friendly."

Federal law is mostly silent about the issue. The Family and Medical Leave Act does permit mothers to take unpaid leave for breast-feeding. However, an effort in Congress to extend the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) to protect breast-feeding seems unlikely to pass any time soon.

Best bet: Work with nursing employees to coordinate their break times to accommodate feedings or expressing. If possible, offer a private room with an electrical outlet, door lock, sink and place to chill the milk.

Customers who breast-feed

Even if you don't have an employee who is breast-feeding, you need to know your state law regarding breast-feeding in public. Reason: Employees may have to respond if one customer complains about another.

Several states allow mothers to breast-feed in any place that she and the child would otherwise be permitted. And 10 states specify that breast-feeding is not considered nudity or lewd behavior.

Best bet: Make it a company policy to allow breast-feeding in your establishment, even if your state doesn't mandate it. If you try to stop a mother from nursing, the public relations backlash could be fierce.

Court action

Courts have refused to declare breastfeeding a "disability" under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But failing to accommodate a mother who wishes to breast-feed could play into charges of pregnancy discrimination.

For example, a New York mother asked to be excused from attending a seminar in Florida or to be permitted to take along her nursing son. The employer refused and fired her. The federal court ruled that the seminar incident plus other incidents could add up to a violation of the PDA under Title VII. (Bond v. Sterling Inc., N.D. N.Y., 1998)

Last year, another federal court dismissed one mother's claims of a hostile work environment, saying that even if she did suffer offensive remarks and unfair treatment because she was pumping milk, that isn't covered by Title VII. (Martinez v. NBC Inc., S.D. N.Y, 1999)

Online resources

LaLeche League's Current Summary of Breast-feeding Legislation, www.lalecheleague.org/LawMain.html

National Conference of State Legislators, Breastfeeding Laws by State, at www.ncsl.org/programs/health/breast.htm

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