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Your Legal Rights As A Working Breastfeeding Parent, And What To Do If Your Rights Are Violated

By Wendy Wisner, IBCLC

The majority of new moms return to work after having a baby—only 34% decide not to return to work, and as many as 1/4 of moms return to work within 2 weeks of having a baby. The reasons moms return to work are usually financial, although some women do so because they genuinely love their jobs.

Whatever the case, moms who are breastfeeding deserve all the support they can get. Learning to pump a sufficient amount of milk can be difficult, and finding ways to maintain the nursing relationship can be tough as well. Many incredible moms do it beautifully, but it’s not without challenges.

Perhaps the biggest challenge moms face is ensuring that their workplace is breastfeeding-friendly and supportive of their breastfeeding and pumping goals.

The good news is that there are laws protecting your rights to pump at work – both on the federal and state level. The not-so-good news is that not every employee is protected, and not every company follows the law.

As you begin to think about returning to work, it’s wise to have open and honest conversations with your employer about what your breastfeeding and pumping needs are, and how you can work together to ensure these needs are met.

But you will also want to make sure you are well-educated about what your rights are, and what to do if your rights are violated by your employer. So let’s dive right in, why don’t we?

Kristi, Nicole, breastfeeding mom, pumping at work

Kristi Nicole pumping at work and balancing the bottles on her legs.

Your Federal Protections

It wasn’t until almost a decade ago that the federal government had any laws on the books protecting breastfeeding moms. In 2010, the federal government passed the “Break Time for Nursing Mothers” law, as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

As described by the United States Breastfeeding Committee, the law specifically covers “hourly wage-earning and some salaried employees (nonexempt workers).” According to The Office of Women’s Health, employees who are covered by Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) are also covered under the “Break Time For Nursing Mothers” law. If you are unsure whether you are covered under the law, The Office Of Women’s Health suggests contacting your human resources manager, who should know.

If you are eligible, here is what is covered under the law:

  1. Reasonable Break Time To Pump

Under the law, your employer must allow you “reasonable time” to pump, for up to a year after the birth of your baby. If you take extra break time to pump, your employer is not required to pay you for that time. However, according to the ACLU, if you use your paid break time to pump, your employer must pay you then.

  1. A Private Place To Pump

Your employer must also provide you with a private place to pump – and it can’t be a bathroom. As the law itself states, this space must be “shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public.” And as the ACLU explains, your employer must provide you with comfortable accommodations: a chair, and a flat surface to rest your pump on. Electrical outlets should be provided as well, though this is not a legal requirement.

Exceptions and Other Protections 

In some cases, employers with fewer than 50 employees are exempted from this law. In order to be exempt, they have to show that adhering to the law “would impose an undue hardship” and cause “significant difficulty or expense when considered in relation to the size, financial resources, nature, or structure of the employer’s business,” according to the United States Breastfeeding Committee.

If, for whatever reason, you find that you or your employer are not eligible for protection under the federal law, you might find that you have protection under your own state’s laws. This is something definitely worth looking into! You can contact your state or local breastfeeding coalition to find out what your protections are.

tracee janelle chanley, pumping at work, breastfeeding

Tracee Janelle Chanley pumping at work. 

What You Can Do If Your Rights Are Violated

Let’s face it, although there are some employers out there that do an wonderful job supporting breastfeeding mothers, many do not. And some, in fact, violate the law in the process. If you suspect that your rights are being violated, there are some actions you can take to fight back.

  1. Speak To Your Supervisor Or Human Resources Department

The first step is to discuss your concerns with your employer. This can be understandably stressful. But it may be that open communication and a little education about what your needs are as a breastfeeding mother are all it takes for things to improve.

  1. File A Complaint With The Department Of Labor

If you aren’t getting anywhere with your employer directly, consider filing a complaint with The U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division (WHD). They have a toll-free number you can call to file the complaint: 1-800-487-9243. You can find a local office where you can file a complaint here: www.dol.gov/whd. Remember, your employer is not allowed to fire you if you file a complaint.

  1. Contact The ACLU

In some cases, the ACLU has taken on breastfeeding/workplace cases on their own. If they can’t represent you, they can give you advice about who to contact and how you can stand up for your breastfeeding rights at work. Use this link to find your local ACLU office.

It is never fun having to deal with workplace issues surrounding your breastfeeding and pumping rights. In addition to reaching out to the above resources for help, it’s always wise to connect to fellow breastfeeding mothers and breastfeeding support people in your community. Their stories and words of wisdom can be truly priceless, and help guide you on a path of empowerment as you work through these issues with your employer.

Most of all, if you are finding that your rights are being violated, remember that there are many protections in place for you, and it’s so important to educate yourself on what those right are. Know too, that whatever you are struggling with as you balance working, breastfeeding, and mothering, you are not alone, it will all fall into place in the end, and you are doing an awesome job.

Wendy is the mom of two awesome boys, a freelance writer and editor, and a lactation consultant (IBCLC). Find her on the web at www.wendywisner.com.

For more information check out How To Pump At Work