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Pumping at Work: What Nursing Mothers Need From Their Employers

Posted by Patrick Ball on 25 Mar 2015

Employers have a vested interest in supporting nursing employees and working moms transitioning back from maternity leave.

We’re not here to tell you breastfeeding will (or won’t) get your babies into Harvard. Or to comment on Kourtney Kardashian’s hands-free pumping pic. Or to say anything of Olivia Wilde breastfeeding at work in her rather famous photo shoot.

We’re talking about the less glamorous side of breastfeeding: Pumping ... at work.

There are horror stories aplenty about nursing mothers pumping at work, and FastCompany shared a few of them earlier this year. But organizations are increasingly realizing that supporting working moms in their transition back from maternity leave is good for business, and providing a mother’s room so moms don’t have to pump in a supply closet is part of that equation.

With that in mind, we asked Amelia Smythe, deputy director of the United States Breastfeeding Committee, about what employers should know about supporting nursing employees and the laws around pumping at work.

WPS: What legal requirements should employers be aware of?

AS: The federal "Break Time for Nursing Mothers" law requires employers to provide break time and a place for hourly paid workers to express breast milk at work. The law states that employers must provide a "reasonable" amount of time and that they must provide a private space other than a bathroom. They are required to provide this until the employee's baby turns one year old.

Note: Salaried employees have no such guarantees under the federal law. And employers with fewer than 50 employees are not subject to the break time provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act if it would impose an undue hardship.

In addition, many states have workplace breastfeeding laws. When both the federal and state governments address the same situation, the stronger component of the law applies. This means that if your state has a workplace breastfeeding law that is stronger than the federal law, your state law will overrule the “Break Time for Nursing Mothers” law in the places where it is stronger. The federal law will be enforced in all states without a state law.

Tip: To find out which laws apply to your workplace, visit the U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau online map of employment protections for women who are pregnant or nursing for a state-by-state listing of breastfeeding laws. For information on other state breastfeeding laws, see the directory from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

WPS: What are the benefits to employers who support breastfeeding employees?

AS: Many employers do not realize that breastfeeding can save money. Benefits of supporting breastfeeding employees include:

  • Breastfeeding employees miss work less often because breastfed infants are healthier
  • Breastfeeding lowers health care costs
  • Breastfeeding support helps employers keep their best employees so that less money is spent hiring and training new employees
  • Employees whose breastfeeding needs are accommodated and supported in the workplace report higher productivity and loyalty
  • Supporting breastfeeding employees creates a positive public image.

WPS: Can you offer a few tips for employers on setting up a space for breastfeeding mothers at work?

AS: The law requires employers to provide a place that is not a bathroom. It must be completely private so that no one can see inside the space and no one is able to enter the space while it is being used. It also must be "functional as a space for expressing breast milk." The Business Case for Breastfeeding recommends that at a minimum, employers provide a safe and private space with a chair and a small table or shelf to set the breast pump on.

An especially useful space could include an electrical outlet, a door that can be locked from the inside, a sink, and/or a refrigerator located near the pumping space. Though not required, these additions can help shorten the amount of time an employee needs because they will not need to travel to another area to wash their hands, clean pump parts, and store their milk. It is also helpful to ensure that the space is near the employee’s work station so that significant time is not spent traveling to the pumping space.

Unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), however, the “Break Time for Nursing Mothers” law does not require layout changes. In many workplaces, there is no unused space. In that case, the employer could instead provide access to a space normally used for other things (like a manager's office or storage area) or accommodations can be as simple as privacy screens with appropriate accompanying policies. As long as the space is available each time the employee needs it, the employer is meeting the requirements of the law. If there are no breastfeeding employees, the employer does not need to maintain a space.

WPS: What suggestions do you have for workplaces with more than one breastfeeding employee?

AS: If more than one breastfeeding employee will need the space, mothers can develop a room-use schedule or the employer can install privacy curtains or dividers so that the room can be used by more than one person at a time. The dividers must ensure that each station is completely private.

Read more about Helping Working Moms Transition Back From Maternity Leave

WPS: How can employers make sure employees are aware of breastfeeding support options?

AS: A conversation with pregnant employees is often the most simple and direct way to spread the word about breastfeeding support options. The Office on Women’s Health provides additional tips and information on promoting breastfeeding accommodations to employees.

More Resources on Pumping at Work

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