Every mom who has ever gone through the painstaking process of breast-pumping—cleaning the parts, packing the bag, storing the milk, taking it home—can tell you it’s no picnic. But it might soon get a lot easier for thousands of working moms, as cities and states across the country pass laws that require employers to actually give women time and space to pump.
Take California, for example. As of Jan. 1, 2019, the state’s employers aren’t allowed to simply shove breast-pumping moms in the bathroom. That’s thanks to a slight change in the labor code—previously, the law simply required employers to provide a breast-pumping spot that wasn’t a “toilet stall.” Now, employers have to make reasonable efforts to provide moms with the use of a location other than a bathroom.
While at first it might not seem like big news—federal law has required employers to provide women with time to pump and space that’s not a bathroom since 2010—there’s one key distinction that makes the new state laws a vast improvement: The federal law that was passed as part of the Affordable Care Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act's Break Time for Nursing Mothers, is only applicable to employers with 50 or more employees.
“These new state laws now apply to all employers (unless true hardship can be shown), whereas federal law does exempt employers with fewer than 50 employees. This is a huge victory for employees at small employers,” says Debi Yadegari, Founder and CEO of MommaWork, a consulting company that provides corporate lactation support services and ensures legal compliance with local, state and federal lactation accommodation laws.
More than 25 state and local lactation accommodation laws have been passed since 2010, and while many of them simply reaffirm federal law, some also go above and beyond in ways that make breast-pumping much easier at work.
While federal law requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide a spot to pump besides the bathroom, it doesn’t say much, or anything, about making that space comfy or convenient. That’s where states and cities are stepping up. New York City recently passed a law that requires lactation spaces to have access to an electrical outlet and running water nearby. Chesterton, a small town in Indiana, requires that reasonable efforts be made to provide nursing moms with access to refrigeration.
Some states have even extended the legal timeframe for nursing moms. Although federal law only requires employers to make accommodations for a year, Colorado now gives nursing moms two years. New York provides protection for up to three years.
“Others even tackle the minutiae of record-keeping,” Yadegari adds. “A recently passed San Francisco ordinance requires employers to reduce their lactation policy to writing and keep all lactation accommodation requests on file for three years!”
San Francisco is also one of the few places that imposes penalties on employers who refuse to comply with the law. Under the law, they may be fined up to $500 per violation, and employers who fail to promptly comply with a “Notice to Correct” may be liable for up to $50 per day and $50 per employee affected by such a violation, Yadegari says.
And in perhaps one of the best improvements to the federal law, Illinois now requires employers to provide paid nursing breaks. (Under federal law, they’re not required to be paid, so hourly employees are often forced to clock out while pumping.)
More laws are on the horizon. Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana look likely to pass breast-pumping protections in 2019, says Dina Bakst, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, a legal advocacy organization focused on the rights of working families. [To see where your state stands, check out this state-by-state guide to breastfeeding rights.] And with more women than ever filling the seats of state legislatures and Congress, it’s likely the needs of working moms will stay front and center in 2019.
It’s good news for women, who often fear that asking for even the smallest of accommodations at work will put them in bad standing with their bosses. (Because, often, it will.) One recent study found that half of pregnant women fear breast-pumping will limit their career growth.
Unfortunately the new laws, with the exception of San Francisco, suffer from the same fatal flaw as the federal law: There’s no legal penalty for employers who refuse to follow the law. But Yadegari says it’s not fear of a “nominal administrative penalty that keeps decision makers awake at night—it is the threat of bad press from non-compliance.”
In other words, these laws give working moms more power simply by existing.
“A pumping working mom, with a good story to tell, can always garner attention and wreak immense havoc from a public relations point of view,” she explains. “ If the employer is a public company, no legislative fine could ever compare with the pain of a falling stock price if the bad press were to escalate.”
This story originally appeared on Working Mother.