Rights, Schmights. What’s The Truth About A Working Mother’s Right To Pump?


baby drinking milk


Elaine McGhee
Elaine McGhee
The laws protecting working moms around breastfeeding and pumping are almost as flimsy as a Hooter Hider in a hurricane. While there are laws in place, there are quite a few conditions -- like number of employees, non-exempt status, and various State laws -- that make the issue very confusing. Not to mention, the political pressures  to repeal the Affordable Care Act that would reverse key, long-overdue legal protections like a non-bathroom location for lactating mothers!
Knowing your rights is the first step to feeling confident about pumping in the workplace. So, how do you know if that creepy guy who keeps knocking on your door -- despite seeing the borrowed hotel “Do Not Disturb” door hanger -- has the right to stop you?
Think of your rights in three bags. Much like your handbag, your pump bag and your diaper bag, the Federal laws, the State laws and your Employer policies are available to you. You may not need to access each one simultaneously, but you do need to know what is inside of them.
Federal laws
At a Federal level, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) – Break Time for Nursing Mothers Provision and the Affordable Care Act require employers to provide “reasonable break time” and a place other than the bathroom (amen!) to express milk for the first year of baby’s life.
Don’t get too excited. Like most laws, and the occasional pump session, navigating your way can get a little messy! There are other factors that affect how the laws are applied to you:
  • The “reasonable” break time is not defined in minutes or frequency.
  • “Reasonable” break time is not paid. If you are not completely relieved of your work duty during the pump session, they must compensate you.
  • Non-bathroom space does not have to be permanent. Thankfully there are wellness room designers who create beautiful spaces for pumping moms.
  • If the employer has less than 50 employees, or undue hardship is imposed, then the law does not apply to that employer. She is only feeding the future of America from her body, no biggie!
  • There is a glimmer of hope. If your State has better protections, then the State law prevails.
And as pointed out in the book Work.Pump.Repeat, the “white collar” exemption exists. These laws only apply to employees under FLSA (Federal employees or non-Federal employees who are paid hourly.) So if you are a private sector, salaried employee, then this law does not apply to you.  
State laws
Like your baby napping an unexpected half-hour longer, there is some relief at a State level when it comes to rights and protections. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, “Forty-nine states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location.”  Yet only “29 states have laws about breastfeeding in work places.” Check here for the breastfeeding  laws by State.
Employer policies
There is nothing like a significant life change to force you to get to know your HR representative!  Once you are done filling out your Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) paperwork, you might want to dust off your employee handbook and talk to HR about their lactation support policies.
Policies usually contain information about break time, space, and roles of the employee and the supervisors and other support systems unique to your organization. A good example of a sample policy can be found at Womenshealth.org.
Not finding a robust policy at your employer? Make your voice heard. Real change in an organization starts with the employees, like you, who speak up and offer solutions. Check out the business case for building a breastfeeding friendly workplace to get started.

Knowing your rights is an important first step, but those protections will never be absolute and wide sweeping enough for every working mother to rely solely on them. It’s upon each courageous mama to work with their employer to find creative solutions and show that it’s good for their bottom line to support new mothers!
Elaine is a Working Mom Support Coach on a mission de-stress maternity leave and propel a nation of thriving working mothers. From her own emotionally traumatic return-to-work after her first daughter (HOT MESS!), ThriveMomma.com was born. She coaches new moms on of return-to-work readiness, time management and mindful living. And consults for corporations on paternity transition planning and work/life policies to retain and nurture working parents.


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