Beyond the Letter of the Law: How Breastfeeding Makes Sense for Employees and Employers

August 14, 2019

Beyond the Letter of the Law: How Breastfeeding Makes Sense for Employees and Employers

California Breastfeeding Coalition

It’s been close to a decade since the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was amended to require employers to provide basic accommodations for breastfeeding employees at work. 

That investment in our future has paid off. We’re seeing great strides being made, and yet we are still seeing disparities in the data that are concerning.


Conflicting Numbers Reveal Crisis

Forbes reported  55 percent of women with children under the age of 3 are employed, and CDC data shows more than 80 percent of all new mothers today choose to breastfeed. On the flipside, 43 percent of new moms leave the workforce within three months of giving birth.

Why? Because the way laws are written leave too many women without protection. Following the letter of the law – basic accommodation – isn’t the same as supporting breastfeeding success.

Just ask moms like Sarah, a Bay Area tech employee. The stress of trying to share her company’s single lactation room with every other nursing employee made her feel like she had to choose between producing milk for her newborn and being a productive employee.

“There’s a point where you can’t do both,” Sarah said. “You can’t be successful at your job and express milk successfully without certain things in place.”

When her milk supply shut down six weeks after returning to work, she was left without options.

Like many working moms, Sarah experienced a range of emotions – from feeling like her employer didn’t know any better to feeling like she was being pushed out. 


Breastfeeding Benefits Business

We know plenty about the health benefits of breastfeeding, but what about the economic benefits? Breastfeeding isn’t just good for moms and babies. It’s good for employers, too.

The United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) cites the following employer benefits:

  • Healthier breastfed infants mean fewer employee absences
  • Lower health care costs
  • Employee retention means less money spent hiring and training new staff
  • Breastfeeding support increases productivity and loyalty among employees

The Business Case for Breastfeeding, produced by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, illustrates further how employers benefit from supporting their breastfeeding workers and offers practical steps to accomplish the goal. But the idea of breastfeeding workers benefiting employers isn’t just theory. It works in practice, too.


Employer Examples to Follow

Take the case of Patagonia, recently shared on our Facebook page.  The outdoor clothing company is known for a 100 percent retention rate of moms by offering on-site child care and a baby-friendly workplace culture. In reference to a mom nursing during a meeting, Vice President Dean Carter reportedly said, “There is no way to measure the ROI on that. But I know it’s huge.”

Patagonia isn’t the only company that has found a way to better their bottom line by supporting breastfeeding workers. Several employers – many here in California – go the extra mile and get high ROI in the form of employee productivity and loyalty. 

Mellano and Company, based in Escondido, defies the assumption that the agricultural industry can’t accommodate employee lactation needs. The 2019 Mother-Baby Friendly Award honoree has shifted culture, and half of its employees continue to breastfeed upon returning to work. Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, which employees more than 6,000 workers, offers several lactation spaces and equips employees with additional resources in the event that they need extra support.


How Policy Can Help

Policy goes a long way in offering employers the guidance necessary to meet the needs of employees.

Senate Bill 142, introduced by Bay Area Senator Scott Weiner, expands California’s current lactation accommodation law by specifying that lactation rooms must be located within “close proximity” of an employee’s assigned work space and have mechanisms in place so that women can pump free from distraction or interruption. If passed, SB 142 would mandate employers to have lactation policies, lactation request forms and best-practice guidelines accessible to both employees and employers.

Passing this legislation would clarify to both employers and employees what it means to accommodate the needs of breastfeeding workers.


A Celebration of What Works

In the meantime, it’s important to continue celebrating employers who understand the importance of breastfeeding-friendly practices. If you know of an employer making strides in this area, we want to hear about it. Share your story by emailing