Employers, here’s a quick win for your current workforce, future workforce, and company’s bottom line: support for breastfeeding working parents. The PUMP Act, a piece of non-trivial legislation, would have ensured that more than 12.7 million parents had the option to breastfeed their children and continue to work. Now, another bill is up for passage. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would also expand breastfeeding protections for workers.
To be clear, families aren’t the only ones who would benefit from this legislation. The positive externalities will reach you, too.
Before going on maternity leave with my second child, my manager and I made three agreements for my postpartum return to work:
- I would work four 10-hour days and be responsive to emails on the fifth day.
- I would travel no more than 25% of the time.
- I would only travel after my daughter reached six months old.
These agreements mattered to me because I wanted to ensure my daughter had an equitable start to her life as had my first child. I was fortunate that, at the time of my first pregnancy, my manager allowed me to forgo a year of travel so I could nurse my son. On the days I worked, I pumped at 4 a.m., 8 a.m., 12 noon, and 4 p.m. Each pumping session lasted about 30 minutes. I breastfed my son for 13 months.
Unfortunately, my daughter did not receive the same start to life as my son. My manager was fired during maternity leave with my daughter. We only had the last agreement (that travel would resume after my daughter was six months old) in writing. That, not incidentally, became the only agreement my new manager honored, and parsimoniously at that.
The day after my daughter’s six-month-aversary, my manager returned me to a rigorous travel schedule that meant I was airborne 50% of the time. My milk dried up. And that was that. I was only able to breastfeed my daughter for eight months.
Breadwinner moms head 40% of U.S. households with children
I am the sole breadwinner for a family of four. Tapping out of the labor force or scaling back my career to breastfeed my daughter weren’t viable options for me. Nor would they be viable options for the 16 million breadwinner moms who support 28 million children in the United States.
Millions of mothers must return to the paid workforce postpartum, and it’s there where the feasibility of breastfeeding dissipates. In fact, the number one barrier to breastfeeding is simply having a job. Approximately 60% of women say they lack adequate break time and accommodations at work to pump breast milk.
Even if they do receive equitable pumping accommodations, mothers must navigate an insidious glass maze of stigma to perform this basic biological function. Lawsuits for breastfeeding discrimination at work have shot up 800% in recent years. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mommy bias.
Despite moms holding the record for the most committed employees over the course of their careers, they face bias in hiring, pay, performance, and potential.
For example, mothers are perceived as 12.1% less committed to their jobs than non-mothers. Meanwhile, fathers are perceived as 5% more committed to their jobs than non-fathers. Moreover, women job applicants who appear not to be mothers are twice as likely to get a job interview than women applicants who appear to have children.
The trade-off between biology and economic security not only hamstrings parents in today’s labor force, but it also disadvantages tomorrow’s labor force and the economy as a whole.
Breastfeeding: a force multiplier and economic underdog
Economists peg the monetary value of human milk production in the U.S. at more than $110 billion per year. In other words, breastfeeding is a big deal.
It’s a big deal not only to the economy as an abstract system, but also to the players within it. A study of employed new mothers found that 28% of their infants had no illness during the one-year test period. Of those 28%, 86% had been breastfed and 14% had been formula fed. When the infants did fall ill, and it necessitated a mother’s absence from work, 75% of absenteeism came from moms of formula-fed children compared to 25% from moms of breastfed children.
This brings us to the business case for breastfeeding. Breastfeeding benefits the child (improved health outcomes), it benefits the mother (freedom to choose and bonding), and it benefits the employer (reduced absenteeism and healthcare costs). One study found that per-person healthcare costs dropped by $2,146 for mothers who participated in company-supported maternity and lactation programs compared to mothers who did not participate. The same study found that newborn healthcare costs are three times higher for babies whose mothers did not participate in the maternity and lactation programs than babies whose mothers did participate in the support programs.
The ROI on breastfeeding-support programs would excite any investor in today’s bear market. Every $1 invested in breastfeeding intervention yields a $35 return. And if only 90% of moms in the U.S. exclusively breastfed their newborns for only six months, 911 lives would be saved, and the U.S. economy would be $13 billion stronger. The benefits of breastfeeding extend far beyond that of the parent-child unit. They accrue to our businesses and enrich our economic operating system.
How companies can support breastfeeding employees
The quickest way—and let’s consider table stakes—to realize the gains of breastfeeding is to provide adequate accommodations and support for lactating parents.
To truly flex the power of the private-sector and take a stand for equity, employers should use their strong voice and advocate for legislation, such as the PUMP Act and Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. Employers, this is your opportunity to stand up and speak out. Doing so is an investment in your current and future workforce.
Katica Roy is the founder and CEO of Pipeline Equity.