Posted 05-12-2010

With the passage of health care reform legislation in March, 2010, (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010) there has been a lot of talk in workplaces around the country about health care and struggles with health care coverage. Often the debates have been emotional and quite often, very personal, with confidential medical information being shared. Managers need to be aware that privacy laws protecting employee medical and genetic information, as well as that of their family members, are still in effect. Such information cannot play any part in decision making about promotions, assignments, discipline, or other workplace matters.

Managers who have been educated about employee privacy rights and trained to spot legal issues would know when to contact HR or Legal regarding ADA accommodations, referral to an EAP program, or Family and Medical Leave Act rights, including the new military provisions. They would also know that if they happen to hear about an employee’s family medical history, they must forget what they heard!

In addition to its well-publicized health insurance reforms, the new law also made an important change to federal labor law. The law now requires that the following accommodations must be made by employers for nursing mothers:

  • A reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth, each time such employee has need to express the milk; and
  • A place, other than bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.

Why was this made part of the health care reform law? Congressional sponsors cited these health concerns in support of this legislation protect a mother’s right to breastfeed and promoting breastfeeding as an option for working mothers: Breastfed babies visit the doctor less frequently, spend less time in the hospital, and require less prescription medication than bottle-fed babies, notes the Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health. Because of the significant health benefits for the mother and child, the World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend at least six months of exclusive breastfeeding for all infants.

There’s a plus side for employers too: Because breastfed babies are healthier, this translates into reduced health care costs for breastfed infants and lower medical insurance claims for employers. Also, an employer is not required to pay an employee for the break time taken to express milk.

The new law went into effect immediately, and affects almost all US employers, although employers with fewer than 50 employees can claim an exemption “if such requirements would impose an undue hardship by causing the employer significant difficulty when considered in relation to the size, financial resources, nature, or structure of the employer’s business.” Many states already have similar laws in place, and the new federal law does not preempt any state law, such as New York’s, that provides greater protections to employees.

What this means to you:
Train your managers to have a legal eye to spot the issues, and get guidance from upper management, HR, or Legal. That way, when medical and privacy issues come up, they know how to proceed and how to help employees stay focused on the work at hand.

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.