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Your Right to Lactation Breaks in California

Pregnancy and related health and childcare concerns have historically been among the biggest barriers women have faced while trying to enter the workplace. 

Up until the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978, just 45 years ago, it was still perfectly legal for companies to fire workers because they became or could become pregnant. Only this year, in 2023, did the federal government finally require employers to provide pregnant workers with reasonable accommodations in the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA).

Laws like the PWFA show that conditions for expecting and new mothers continue to improve. However, states like California already guaranteed pregnant people the protections included in the PWFA and other federal laws. For example, Governor Gavin Newsom significantly expanded nursing mothers’ workplace rights back in 2020. Today, every California employer must grant employees time to express milk in clean and private surroundings. Failing to do so violates their workers’ rights and is a common example of discrimination against working mothers.

In other words, you have the right to take breaks at work to pump. Here’s what you should know about these rights, who’s covered by the state’s laws, and signs that you’re not getting the nursing time you’re owed under the law. 

Legal Requirements for California Lactation Breaks

California’s Labor Code is extremely specific about what employers must provide for nursing mothers. There are several criteria that employers need to meet to respect employees’ rights, including:

  • Time: All employers must give workers breaks to pump breastmilk if necessary. This must be a “reasonable amount of time,” and it must be granted every time pumping is needed. This includes giving workers more break time than they would normally receive if necessary. However, employers do not need to pay for this extra time, and they can require workers to use their normal breaks concurrently with breastfeeding time.
  • Privacy: Employers must provide a room or other private location shielded from view and not subject to intrusions or interruptions where employees can pump. This room must have a place to sit, a surface on which to place necessary supplies, and access to electricity. It must be near the employee’s workplace, and there must also be an accessible sink and refrigerator nearby to clean pumping devices and store the milk. 
  • Cleanliness: The room provided by the employer cannot be a bathroom. It must be clean, safe, and free from hazardous materials.
  • Freedom from harassment: Employers cannot require a doctor’s note or other proof that workers “need” to express breastmilk. They also may not harass or retaliate against workers who request or take lactation breaks. 

Furthermore, all employers must implement written policies regarding lactation accommodations. These policies must be provided to workers when hired and when they inquire about, take, and return from parental leave. 

Who Is Eligible for Nursing Breaks in California?

All employers in California are held to the standards listed above for lactation breaks. That means all employees have the right to take time to pump if necessary, regardless of gender. However, there are a few potential restrictions that are typically decided on a case-by-case basis. 

First, workers may only take lactation breaks to pump breastmilk for their own infant children. There is no strict time limit on how long this period lasts, but it is unlikely to extend past their child’s third birthday. Furthermore, employers are not obligated to offer this time if a worker is no longer lactating or feeding their children with the milk. 

Second, employers with fewer than 50 employees may be exempt from some requirements if they can prove they pose an “undue hardship” on the business. They must still provide the break time and make a reasonable effort to provide a safe and sanitary environment other than a toilet stall. However, these small businesses may not be required to provide a separate space with access to a seat, surface, electricity, privacy, or freedom from interruption. 

Signs You Aren’t Getting the Nursing Breaks You’re Due

Of course, just because an employer is legally obligated to give workers lactation breaks doesn’t mean they will actually do so. If any of the following issues sound familiar, your employer may be violating your right to take nursing breaks:

  • You are not informed of your right to take lactation breaks, or your employee manual has no written policy.
  • You’re required to get a doctor’s note or otherwise prove that you “need” to take these breaks.
  • You aren’t permitted to take breaks as necessary. 
  • The only place you can pump is in a bathroom stall. 
  • You are instructed to pump somewhere without the necessary equipment. 
  • You are not permitted or able to store your breastmilk on-site.
  • You have to travel a significant distance to get to the approved pumping location. 
  • You are harassed or face penalties because you need to take time to pump. 

Each of these situations violates your right to take breaks and pump in a safe and sanitary environment. You may have the right to file a claim against your employer to receive the breaks you’re owed and compensation for the time you’ve been denied, 

What to Do If Your Employer Doesn’t Grant Breastfeeding Breaks 

Breastfeeding is a natural part of human existence. If your employer refuses to offer you the breaks you need to pump and feed your child, it violates your rights under California law. 

You don’t have to accept this mistreatment, though. You can put your health and your baby’s nutrition first by holding your employer accountable for its unlawful behavior. The skilled pregnancy discrimination lawyers at Le Clerc & Le Clerc LLP can help. Our experienced employee advocates are prepared to protect your rights as an employee and a mother in court, if necessary. Schedule your consultation to discuss your working conditions and discover if you may have a claim.

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