The new year began with a win for working women in New Jersey as new and strengthened protections for breastfeeding mothers were signed into law.
Gov. Chris Christie, in his final weeks in office, approved a new state law that makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against women who choose to breastfeed or pump milk at work. The law boosts existing federal civil rights protections for working mothers.
“We are so excited about this, because by adding breastfeeding to the list of discrimination protections, it will help to normalize breastfeeding,” said Ellen Maughan, board member and legislative chairwoman at the New Jersey Breastfeeding Coalition.
Breastfeeding, recognized as the best source of nutrition for infants, is on the rise nationally and in New Jersey, where nearly 84 percent of new mothers reported breastfeeding in 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding, when possible, for the first six months of a baby’s life for the benefits of nutrition and disease-fighting substances that protect babies from illness.
The new civil rights protections fall under the state’s Law Against Discrimination. There would be violations and penalties for employers who do not comply with the new law, which requires employers to provide reasonable break time each day and an appropriate location, other than a bathroom stall, for a woman to pump milk.
It would be a violation for a working woman to be fired or discriminated against for taking that time to pump milk.
Maughan said women may feel intimidated at their workplaces to ask for additional time to pump milk, which can result in a mother not pumping milk and keeping up her supply, thus possibly reducing her ability to breastfeed her child at home.
“We know sometimes employers think that mothers doing something for their children is a distraction from work, but studies show that places where mothers are accommodated with pumping areas, those mothers are more productive and take less sick days,” she said, “so it’s actually just the opposite.”
The bill, as passed, still allows for exemptions in cases that the requirements would place an “undue hardship” on the employer.
Things under consideration for undue hardship, as outlined it the law, include the overall size of the business in regards to number of employees, type of facilities, size of budget, type of the employer’s operations, nature and cost of the accommodation needed, and the extent to which the accommodations would involve waiving an essential requirement of a job.
Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said in a statement that the association and six other groups opposed an early version of the law and in October 2016 sought to have the bill removed from the Law Against Discrimination and placed in another section of employment law “so that the penalties would be more appropriate for employers who broke the rule without intent.”
After the bill remained under the discrimination law, Siekerka said, the association pulled its opposition to the bill and remained neutral as it passed through the Legislature.
Bob Considine, chief communications officer, said association members don’t foresee much of an impact on New Jersey businesses, because many of them already have protocols in place to accommodate breastfeeding mothers under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
Sarah Chaikin, lactation consultant at Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative, said the new law takes those rights under the federal act and gives a redundant layer of protection in New Jersey, which provides more inclusive, comprehensive protections.
Chaikin said she hopes the new law will have a trickle-down effect in that the culture around breastfeeding with change, grow and become more acknowledged by employers and in the workplace.
It also gives women who believe they aren’t being given appropriate accommodations at their places of work a better legal leg to stand on if they chose to make complaints and seek those accommodations to breastfeed at work.
The governor also signed into law a bill that makes breast pumps, breast pump collection and storage supplies and certain services to breast pump tax-free in New Jersey.
“I think it’s especially powerful under civil rights law,” she said. “We still have hurdles, but hopefully those hurdles are going to be somewhat reduced.”