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Your Right to Breastfeed While Working

In recent years, there has been a significant shift towards recognizing and supporting the rights of breastfeeding mothers in the workplace. This recognition is not only a matter of public health but also of gender equality and workers’ rights. As more mothers choose to continue their careers while breastfeeding, understanding the legal frameworks that protect this choice is crucial. Below, we shed light on the laws that safeguard breastfeeding mothers at work, identify what may constitute a violation of these rights, and offer guidance on how affected individuals can seek assistance.

Understanding Your Rights

In the United States, the primary legislation supporting breastfeeding mothers in the workplace is the “Break Time for Nursing Mothers” provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Enacted in 2010, this law requires employers to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth. In addition, employers must furnish a place, other than a bathroom, shielded from view and free from intrusion, for employees to express breast milk.

While the FLSA’s protections are a significant step forward, they have limitations. For instance, the law applies only to non-exempt (hourly-paid) workers. Although many states have enacted laws that expand these protections to include exempt (salaried) employees, the coverage can vary significantly from one state to another.

State-Specific Laws

Many states and local jurisdictions have passed laws that strengthen or supplement federal protections for breastfeeding employees. For example, states like California require employers to provide lactation accommodations for a longer period than the federal mandate of one year. Other jurisdictions have laws that apply to smaller employers not covered by the FLSA or offer protections for salaried workers. Breastfeeding mothers must familiarize themselves with the rules specific to their state or locality, as these may provide additional rights and protections.

Recognizing Violations

Examples of violations of workers’ rights to breastfeed in the workplace encompass a range of actions or inactions by employers that fail to comply with federal and state laws designed to protect nursing mothers. These violations can significantly impact a mother’s ability to continue breastfeeding while returning to work and can create a hostile or unsupportive work environment. Here are some common examples:

  1. Inadequate Break Time: Employers fail to provide reasonable break times for mothers to express breast milk. According to the “Break Time for Nursing Mothers” law, employers must allow a reasonable amount of break time as frequently as needed by the nursing mother for up to one year after the child’s birth.
  2. Lack of a Private Space: Employers do not provide a space for expressing breast milk that is private, clean, and free from intrusion. The law specifies that this space cannot be a bathroom and must be shielded from view.
  3. Discrimination or Retaliation: Employers discriminate against, retaliate, or take punitive actions against nursing mothers who request or use lactation accommodations. This can include demotions, reduced work hours, unwarranted discipline, or even termination.
  4. Failure to Communicate Policies: Employers do not adequately inform employees of their rights to breastfeed or express milk in the workplace, leading to uncertainty and potential violations due to ignorance of the law.
  5. Inflexible Work Schedules: Employers refuse to allow any flexibility in the work schedule of breastfeeding mothers, making it impractical or impossible for them to express milk at needed intervals or manage breastfeeding schedules effectively.
  6. Denial of Requests for Accommodations: Employers outright deny requests for necessary accommodations related to breastfeeding or expressing milk without engaging in any form of reasonable accommodation process.
  7. Insufficient Support Facilities: Even when a space is provided, it might be inadequate—lacking in cleanliness, privacy, or accessibility. Examples include spaces that are not consistently available, are too far from the employee’s work area, or are improperly maintained.
  8. Harassment: Creating a hostile work environment through negative comments, jokes, or other forms of harassment related to an employee’s need to breastfeed or express milk.

These examples not only represent legal violations but also undermine the efforts to support maternal and child health, as well as work-life balance for working mothers. 

Seeking Help and Enforcement

If you believe your right to lactation breaks has been violated, the first step is to document the issue thoroughly. Keep detailed records of your requests for accommodations and any responses or actions taken by your employer. If possible, communicate your needs and any problems in writing to create a paper trail. Options for getting help include:

  • Direct Dialogue with Employers: Often, issues can be resolved by having an open and honest conversation with your employer. Many employers may not be fully aware of the laws or understand the needs of breastfeeding employees.
  • State Labor Departments: For advice or to file a complaint, your state labor department can be an invaluable resource, especially as state laws may offer broader protections than federal law.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor: The Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor is responsible for enforcing the “Break Time for Nursing Mothers” law. They can provide guidance and, if necessary, intervene on your behalf.

If your rights have been significantly violated, consulting with an attorney who specializes in labor law or women’s rights can be a critical step. Legal professionals can offer advice, negotiate with employers, or initiate legal action if required.

Get Help Exercising Your Right to Breastfeed in the Workplace

Balancing work and breastfeeding is a challenge that no mother should face without support. Understanding your legal rights is the first step in ensuring that you can provide for your child without compromising your career. While the legal landscape offers substantial protections, awareness, and advocacy are key to ensuring these rights are fully realized and respected. If your rights are infringed upon, remember that there are resources and legal pathways available to help you navigate these challenges and secure the accommodations you deserve. You can schedule your consultation with the experienced attorneys at Le Clerc & Le Clerc LLP to discuss your concerns and learn more about your options to pursue legal action for breastfeeding discrimination at work.

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