Obama orders new federal breastfeeding policy

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 5:49 PM

President Obama is asking federal personnel officials to draft "appropriate workplace accommodations" for federal employees who are nursing mothers.

The president issued a memo this week to the Office of Personnel Management asking that the new workplace accommodations be published when ready.

The changes are mandated by provisions in the health-care overhaul bill passed this year that require new breastfeeding rights, primarily for hourly workers in the private and public sectors. But Obama asked the federal government to go a step further by establishing new guidelines for all federal employees, no matter their status, according to White House aides.

Several federal agencies, including the National Security Agency, Government Accountability Office and departments of Labor, State and Transportation already have breastfeeding policies. NSA was the first to establish them in the 1980s, according to OPM.

Three out of four new American mothers start out breastfeeding, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the number that continue throughout the baby's first year is stagnant and low.

Advocates have pushed for broader breastfeeding rights in the workplace, arguing that it is an important recruitment and retention tool and helps ensure the health of young babies.

On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)) announced in 2007 the establishment of special nursing rooms in the Cannon House Office Building for congressional staffers. Senate offices and committees also must make breastfeeding accommodations for staffers, according to the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

The breastfeeding provisions in the health-care overhaul law were pushed by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who had supported similar legislation as a member of the Oregon state legislature. The federal legislation assures that women will not be discriminated against or fired for breastfeeding or pumping breast milk during breaks or lunch. It also provides tax breaks to employers who establish special rooms for breastfeeding mothers or that rent lactation-related equipment.

Janet Kopenhaver, Washington representative for the advocacy group Federally Employed Women, said the new policies "will be a great way to attract those younger workers who would be having babies early in their careers."

FEW and other federal worker unions are concerned that Obama's decision to freeze the pay of federal employees for two years could result in widespread retirements or the departure of younger workers looking for more lucrative private-sector careers once hiring picks up again.

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