Diane Garrett's three years of hard work as an unpaid legislative lobbyist for breastfeeding mothers is finally starting to pay off.

Garrett represented the Nursing Mother's Council of Oregon when the House Human Services and Women's Wellness Committee unanimously approved a breastfeeding bill Mar. 16 dealing with Oregon companies employing more than 25 employees. The measure, HB 2372, would require those companies to accommodate mothers with unpaid rest periods and private space to pump breast milk for their babies while they're at work.

"If you can bring your baby to work, you don't need this bill," Garrett says. "What moms need is a chance to express milk while they're at work. It's the emptying of the breast that tells the body to keep making milk."

Oregon in 2005 became one of a dozen states to enact a law encouraging employers to meet breastfeeding moms' needs. But encouraging lacks the threat of retribution to employers who fail to comply.

If HB 2372 passes this session, it will be the nation's strictest such law, according to Garrett and La Leche League International, a worldwide nonprofit breastfeeding organization. Fines for violators would be as high as $1,000.

Business lobbyists like Lisa Trussell of Associated Oregon Industries have raised concerns before about implementing penalties without providing flexibility for employers. Trussell says this bill addresses those concerns, with exceptions for employers who'd incur "undue hardship" by providing women with time and space to pump their breast milk.

"Employers don't like mandates, and I don't blame them," says Rep. Vicki Berger (R-Salem), who nursed her three children. "People worked hard to find a way to satisfy the what-ifs."

A House vote is scheduled Thursday, March 29, and observers say the bill's prospects in the Senate are considered to be good.

According to the Centers for Disease Control's most recent numbers in 2005, Oregon has the nation's second highest rate of breastfeeding mothers behind Washington. About 89 percent of Oregon mothers nurse their babies, and 59 percent exclusively breastfeed. After the first six months, the numbers drop to 58 percent of Oregon moms still breastfeeding and only 27 percent exclusively feeding their babies with breast milk. The American Academy of Pediatrics says breastfeeding helps babies nutritionally and psychologically in their first year. Garrett says HB 2372 merely recognizes those benefits.

"We accommodate people for bathroom breaks, lunch breaks, vacations, sick days," Garrett says. "There's all kinds of ways that we accept our humanity in the workplace."