Is breast-milk shipping the next big benefit?
When Maggie Marrs returned to work late last year after the birth of her first child, she was nervous.
Adjusting to being back at work was daunting enough, but about two months after she returned, she was due to travel to San Francisco from her home in Austin, Texas for three days of meetings with a client.
“I was already anxious about leaving my baby for an extended amount of time, not to mention being worried about being able to pump while traveling,” she says.
But Marrs was lucky: Her employer, Bazaarvoice—a digital-marketing company—offered breast-milk shipping as an employee benefit through provider Milk Stork. Supplies awaited her at her destination that allowed her to pump from her hotel room, then ship the milk home overnight in a pharmaceutical-grade cooler—all at no cost to her.
“It was such a blessing because I was able to pump on schedule and ship my milk home on a daily basis,” she says.
Marrs is one of a growing number of employees taking advantage of the emerging trend: breast-milk shipping for nursing moms who travel for work. Bazaarvoice, SAP, Pinterest, Home Depot, Zillow, Activision Blizzard and Hilton are among the employers offering the perk in hopes of retaining new moms and making their transition back to the workplace easier. In the process, the benefit is helping to transform workplace culture, advocates say.
“There’s this immediate-impact benefit to nursing moms coming back in the workforce, and they like the fact that, ‘My employer is recognizing that I’m in a different spot, this is something I want to do for my child and you’re making it easier for me,’ ” says Jason Russell, director of North America total rewards at SAP America. SAP began offering the benefit in 2017.
Though the benefit is certainly niche, advocates say it’s a smart investment.
“It’s really a no-brainer for companies to offer this benefit to valuable employees they’re sending out on the road,” says Kate Torgersen, founder and CEO of Milk Stork, explaining that nursing, traveling mothers often have to plan their absence weeks in advance, which can be a logistical nightmare, or figure out how to get breast milk and other supplies through airport security. “For companies, the immediate benefit is, if you have a salesperson who breastfeeds, she’s going to continue to travel. If you have a consultant who’s breastfeeding, she’s not going to ask for a reassignment; she can continue to travel when she has breast-milk shipping because she’s not facing that tradeoff of breastfeeding her baby or doing her job.”
In part, the benefit aims to help new moms successfully return to the job after giving birth, which is no guarantee. According to Ovia Health, one in three women does not return to her job after giving birth. And stress about pumping at work is the second biggest reason women don’t return to their job after maternity leave.
“In some cases, it might encourage women to come back to work a little earlier, knowing this is one less thing they have to worry about,” says Julie Stich of the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, a nonpartisan group that counts more than 8,200 organizations and 32,000 individuals as members. “It also shows employers are supportive of families and work-life balance.”
Just 2% of employers offer a breast-milk-shipping benefit to employees, according to the latest figures from the Society for Human Resource Management. But, with big employers on board and a growing employee demand for perks that better help them balance work and family, that number is likely to grow.
“I think we’re only going to see growth,” Torgersen says. “By and large, many companies still are unaware this is a pain point for women, and they don’t know breast-milk shipping exists. Breastfeeding is also becoming more and more normalized, and its importance is being acknowledged. As that continues to happen—within our communities, within our workplaces—it’s going to continue to drive this trend.”
Bazaarvoice rolled out its breast-milk-shipping benefit in spring 2017 as part of an overhaul of its paid-parental-leave plan, says Gina Lindauer, Bazaarvoices’ benefits manager. The offering immediately got positive feedback.
“Employees are always excited to hear about this benefit,” she says. “It alleviates a stressful part of travelling while nursing with a dependable and easy-to-use solution.”
Lindauer anticipates 10 to 15 of the company’s 500 U.S. employees will use the benefit each year. The company budgets $10,000 per year toward the benefit.
Lindauer calls it a differentiator—a sentiment echoed by Bazaarvoice employee Marrs.
“It is extremely important to me that employers provide this benefit to working mothers,” says Marrs, who is now pregnant with her second child and plans to use the service again after she gives birth. “There is already a lot of guilt associated with having a newborn at home when you’re traveling for work, so providing this service to employees makes me feel valued and recognized for the sacrifices I’m making.”
Meanwhile, SAP has shipped more than 250 kits since the tech company launched the benefit in early 2017, Russell says. Though it’s not an exorbitant amount, he says, it still has been a win for the company and a high-impact benefit for those it affects.
“Because it is so hyper-personalized, it’s something that those who take advantage of it really, really appreciate,” he says. “It’s acknowledgement on the part of the employer and HR leadership that we realize that, just because you’re coming back to work, your identity as a mom doesn’t stop.”
Breast-milk shipping joins other benefits that SAP offers for parents on the job. Last year, the company partnered with digital behavioral-health company Cognoa, which aims to help children reach their full potential—socially, emotionally and developmentally—by providing employees with clinically validated and personalized resources to assess, track and support their child’s unique developmental growth.
Those kinds of benefits really show employees they are cared for by SAP, Russell says. “If we can offer benefits like this that directly help, it sends a broader message that reinforces we’re a culture that truly cares,” he says.
Benefits that help parents, like breast-milk shipping, are emerging as a significant trend among employers. Although paid-parental-leave programs have been a hot benefit over the last few years, a growing number of benefits leaders say more is needed to help new parents successfully return to work after that leave is over—a movement driven, in part, by demand from younger workers.
“Millennial parents are the largest generation of parents,” Torgersen says. “They’re super-informed, and they have super-high expectations for their work/life benefits. They have expectations that their companies are going to support them through their parenting experience and beyond.”
Buzzfeed, for instance, offers breast-milk shipping services through Maven, a company that provides other resources for working parents.
“We have a lot of millennials walking into parenting, and we didn’t want them to feel alone,” Hannah Wilkowski, global benefits manager at Buzzfeed, said recently at the National Business Group on Health’s Workforce Strategy conference in San Diego.
The Maven platform is available for employees from the time they start trying to have a child up until the baby is 6 months old, Wilkowski said. Resources include prenatal services—including access to nutritionists, doulas and career coaches—and post-birth services including sleep coaches, lactation consultants and return-to-work coaches.
“These resources are right there at their fingertips,” she said. “They can talk to counselors when they need to, pretty much on the hour.”
Since Buzzfeed implemented Maven, it has seen 47 births throughout the company; 31 of them used Maven, Wilkowski said. “All feedback has been positive,” she said, “and most of it has been word of mouth, parents telling other parents about this offering.”
Other employers have helped employees ease back into work with flexible schedules after paid parental leave. Noodles & Co., for example, allows qualifying expectant and postpartum mothers to phase out and phase in to their maternity leave, working an 80% schedule the four weeks before and the four weeks after maternity leave while receiving 100% pay. The perk, meant to be a buffer to help with the transition from pregnancy to motherhood, is in addition to six weeks of paid maternity leave.
“All these things are ways to show employees, ‘We value you, you’re a key employee, and we want to make your life easier and help you with the choices you’re making about your family,’ ” Stich says.
A Recruitment and Retention Tool
Though their primary aim is to help retain new moms—a vital focus for many employers—benefits like breast-milk shipping also are seen as a vital recruitment tool in a hot job market.
“We know that mothers are a key part of our workforce, and we need to provide them with options that help balance both their professional and family needs,” Bazaarvoice’s Lindauer says, adding that family-friendly benefits like the Milk Stork service have helped attract a talented and diverse candidate pool.
Likewise, SAP’s Russell says recruiting—and promoting—female talent is a big focus for the company, which is why family-friendly perks are a priority.
“It’s a focus area for us; we’re trying to get more women in tech in general,” he says. “Specifically, we want more women in leadership positions, and when you don’t offer enough, or when your culture doesn’t support a working mom—or working dad, for that matter—and doesn’t acknowledge the fact that [workers] have other competing priorities … that’s a huge loss.”
Torgersen says tech companies are particularly interested in the benefit.
“I think there’s a real drive to create more diversity and to retain women,” she says. “They’re not competing off salary; they’re competing off benefits.”
Other industries partnering with Milk Stork include consulting firms that have “a lot of employees on the road regularly” and law firms “competing for great talent and [that] want to retain the women they have,” Torgersen says.
The fact that a breast-milk-shipping benefit only applies to a handful of employees may temper employers’ eagerness to offer the perk. But it’s still a goodwill benefit that can only help companies attract talent in a tight job market, experts say.
“It’s definitely appealing to women,” IFEBP’s Stich says. “And if you’re in a market where it’s tricky to find good people right now, like most of us are, that might be a benefit that sets you apart as an employer.”
The benefit also shows how much workplace culture has changed over time—and how much more vocal employees are about their wants and needs, Stich says.
“In the past, people with children … they really didn’t say anything to their managers or HR department like, ‘Hey, I’m not traveling because I’m breastfeeding.’ It wasn’t something that was talked about,” she says. “But now, people are comfortable talking about it, and they’re comfortable asking their employer to help them with this type of thing.”
The benefit is “a testament to women speaking loudly about what their needs are,” she says, “and a testament to HR meeting those needs.”