Some Northland employers take the lead in providing secure spaces for nursing moms
It might seem like a little thing, but it’s huge in Jamie Olson’s mind.
“The lock on the door, omigosh, is key,” the social worker said, with no trace of irony.
Olson was talking about the door of one of the nursing mother rooms offered at the Northland Office Building in Virginia by her employer, the St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services Department.
The county department on May 3 became the third entity in the Northland to be designated as a breastfeeding-friendly employer by the Minnesota Department of Health.
Last October, Carlton County government and Mercy Hospital in Moose Lake were among the first seven employers statewide to earn the recognition.
“Those employers went above and beyond,” said Pam Galle, a lactation consultant who works with Northland counties and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, among others.
A Minnesota law signed by Gov. Mark Dayton on Mother’s Day of 2014 requires any entity with even one employee who is a woman of childbearing age to provide a private space and reasonable unpaid break time in which she can express breast milk for her baby. (There’s a hardship clause permitting employers to make the case that they cannot provide such a space, Galle said.)
The space must provide an electrical outlet and cannot be a bathroom, according to a publication of the St. Paul-based Public Health Law Center.
But some employers are being recognized for going beyond the minimum requirements.
“They developed a lactation support policy that defines how they’re going to support women,” said Galle, who has been an international board-certified lactation consultant for 16 years. “And included in that is how they’re going to educate their staff and their supervisors so they can help provide these services for women; and how they’re going to inform women about this, too, when they’re pregnant, so they know before they leave that this is available when they come back.”
Minnesota moms generally recognize the value of breastfeeding, Galle said. According to a 2014 report by the Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion using data from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, 89.2 percent of women who give birth in Minnesota begin breastfeeding instead of immediately using formula. That’s compared with 79.2 percent nationally. But the percentage drops off quickly between two weeks and two months, Galle said.
That corresponds to the period of time when moms go back to their jobs, she said.
“It’s almost like falling off a cliff,” Galle said. “And I think that’s because women aren’t supported when they return to work the way they need to be. … We haven’t done a great job of normalizing breastfeeding. That’s what we need to do — to make it easier for moms returning to work.”
Angela Bowman has been part of the effort to provide that support with the St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services Department.
A public health nurse who is peer counselor coordinator for the WIC program out of Virginia, Bowman is one of the department’s breastfeeding coordinators.
“It started by looking at some spaces that we had and converting them to nursing rooms for mothers,” Bowman said. “Nice, comfy chairs were put in there, some nice lighting was put in there.”
In Duluth, the county has a nursing room in the fourth floor of the courthouse and rooms in all but the second floor of the Government Services Center, as well as a nursing room in the A.P. Cook Building on Rice Lake Road.
Jenna Davis, 31, said the nursing stations in the Government Services Center made a huge difference to her after she gave birth to her first child, a son named Connor, in March of 2015.
Although she’s still breastfeeding Connor, she stopped using the nursing room in April, said Davis, a public health nurse in the maternal child program. Reaching at least a year had been her goal. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 12 months of breastfeeding, while the World Health Organization recommends 24 months or more, she said.
“If (the room) wasn’t available, it would have hampered my success in breastfeeding,” she said.
She showed off the seventh-floor room, adjacent to administrators’ cubicles but with no windows. It contains a cushioned chair, a table, a small refrigerators, a sink and paper towel and soap dispensers. The door can be locked on the inside. The refrigerator is used only for moms to store their breastmilk.
The rooms on the third, fourth, fifth and sixth floors are identical to the seventh-floor room, she said, and are used by employees. A room on the first floor contains a small table, a couch and a recliner, but no refrigerator or sink. It can be used by staff but also is available to clients, such as those in the WIC program, Davis said.
She feels lucky to have had the space, Davis said.
“I think for so many people it is a huge barrier in that either their employers aren’t supportive of it or they don’t have the space to do it,” she said.
The courthouses in Hibbing and Virginia each have a nursing room; the Hibbing Annex has two and Virginia’s Northland Office Building has two. The St. Louis County Service Center in Ely has one.
Space for lactation was offered in the past, Bowman said, but in multipurpose rooms that were less private.
“The women who use these rooms feel safe,” she said. “It’s clean, it’s private and it’s relaxing.”
Dana Kazel, the county’s communications manager, worked elsewhere when her children — now ages 11 and 9 — were infants. She was committed to breastfeeding, Kazel said, and her employer was supportive. But it was an old building, and the only possible places were three bathrooms — and only the bathroom in the basement had an electrical outlet.
“It was dark,” she said.
A RELAXING PLACE
Jessica Dall, 27, is an adult services workers out of the county’s Hibbing and Virginia offices. But Dall, whose first child, Kinsley, was born a little more than a year ago, said she has been in places during the past year that weren’t breastfeeding-friendly.
“I’ve had to go to bathrooms to pump,” she said. “Or utility rooms.”
When she returned to work after giving birth to Kinsley, a safe place to pump was “extremely important” to her, Dall said. During her hourlong lunch break, she could have gone home or to the child care location to nurse her baby, but not during her two 15-minute breaks.
The nursing room she uses with the county in Hibbing has comfortable chairs and no windows, Dall said. It’s a quiet, relaxing area.
“When you’re nursing, you really need that comfortable space to be able to produce milk,” she said. “You need to be able to relax.”
Olson was one of the first moms to use one of the new nursing rooms in Virginia, she said. Her first child, Alaina, was born in September 2014, and she used the room for nine months after returning to work in January.
“It’s big,” Olson said. “It has a big recliner … a table where you could put your stuff down. … It was nice.”
Best of all, she said, being able to lock the door guaranteed no one would inadvertently intrude on her privacy.
Dall, Olson and Davis all said supervisors and colleagues were supportive of their lactation needs.
“They’ve been very understanding when I’ve had to step away,” Dall said.
Carlton County initially envisioned focusing on just its Public Health and Human Services Department, Galle said, but then decided it should be offered to all employees, with lactation spaces in every county building.
Mercy Hospital, a small, independent institution, also rose to the challenge, she said. “They wrote a policy which really embeds their support to make sure it’s going to be long-term.”
Providing safe, comfortable spaces for lactation shouldn’t be difficult even for small employers, Galle said. One county she works with converted a closet into a nursing room.
In downtown Cloquet, The Avenue Coffeehouse — which has three employees in addition to co-owners Brookman and Mandee Carlson — has been recognized by Carlton County as being breastfeeding-friendly, Galle said.
Mandee Carlson said that although she and her husband are childless they have many friends and families with kids, and they recognize the value of extended breastfeeding.
They rent their space from Arise Church upstairs, and with the church’s blessing make its “cry room” available to nursing moms whether they are customers or employees, she said.
Moms are welcome to breastfeed while drinking a latte in the coffeehouse itself, Carlson said, but some prefer the quiet of the cry room.
They’ve had an employee use the space for pumping, she said. Currently an employee’s husband brings their baby in so she can breastfeed.
“Being a family establishment, why wouldn’t you bridge the gap and make it the norm?” Carlson asked.
Such practices make a difference to moms in the workplace, Galle said.
“It’s hard for a woman to return to work,” she said. “She may be worried about job security, all sorts of things, and if we can help to keep things in place it’s going to be easier for her to continue to breastfeed and to express her milk for her baby when she’s at work.”
Davis said she’s happy her employer accommodates breastfeeding, and she hopes more places will follow suit. She lets her clients know that they have a legal right to a private space for breastfeeding in the workplace, and the needed time to use it.
But not everyone gets that yet, she said.
“Our culture isn’t quite set up for breastfeeding-friendly yet,” Davis said.
SIDEBAR: Breastfeeding helps new moms at work
It makes good business sense to facilitate employees’ ability to breastfeed, Pam Galle said.
“Mothers miss work more often when they don’t breastfeed because they’re taking care of themselves or their infants,” said Galle, a lactation consultant whose clients include the seven counties that make up Healthy Northland. “They are more content if they feel like they’re doing that for their baby when they’re separated … so they’re better employees.”
Those contentions are evidence-based, Galle said.
According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Breastfeeding in 2011, infants who are not breastfed face numerous increased risks of diseases or conditions.
Babies who are breastfed are less likely to suffer from diarrhea, ear infections or pneumonia, according to a presentation by Alexis Russell of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health at the Minnesota Breastfeeding Coalition’s annual meeting in Duluth last October.
Women who breastfeed are only half as likely to miss work because of a sick infant as their counterparts who use formula, Russell said.
The Office of Women’s Health — which is part of the U.S. Department of Human Services — cites a 1999 study in the journal Pediatrics concluding that for every 1,000 babies not breastfed, there are 2,033 extra physician visits, 212 days in the hospital and 609 prescriptions.
Women with infants are more likely to continue working in the Upper Midwest than in other parts of the country. Russell cited 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data showing that 73 percent of women with infants remain in the labor force in both Minnesota and Wisconsin — second only to Iowa, with 75 percent.
A mother’s success with breastfeeding can start in the hospital or birthing center, experts say. The Minnesota Department of Health, in an analysis of infants enrolled in the Women, Infants and Children program in 2010, found that breastfed infants who also were given formula in the hospital were 144 percent more likely to have stopped breastfeeding after three months than infants who were exclusively breastfed in the hospital.
The Northland is ahead of other regions in the state in that regard, also according to health department data. In 2015, 69 percent of infants were exclusively breastfed in hospitals in the Healthy Northland counties — Aitkin, Carlton, Cook, Itasca. Koochiching, Lake and St. Louis. That was the best of any of the eight regions surveyed. Freeborn County was second-best, with 54 percent.
When hospitals get moms off to a good start, and employers support their efforts to continue breastfeeding, everyone wins, Galle said.
“The breastfeeding keeps babies healthier,” she said. “It keeps moms healthier, to put it very simply. And not just in the short term, but in the long term. And that affects us all.”
MORE INFORMATION: Where to turn
If you’re a nursing mother in Minnesota and you feel your rights have been violated by your employer, you can file a complaint with the Department of Labor and Industry.
To learn more or file a complaint, call the Labor Standards Department at (651) 284-5070, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.