After the all-too-short weeks home with your new baby, it’s time to go back to work. You head back into the office, say hello to everybody, and check in with your boss to get up to speed. During the conversation, you mention needing a private place to pump milk for your baby, only to hear, “Just go ahead and use the washrooms, nobody will mind.”
At this point, you do a direct stare into the camera like Jim from The Office.
Decades ago, needing to pump breastmilk at work wasn’t a common issue. In 1970, only five percent of mothers were still breastfeeding at the six-month mark.
Today, things are different. 50% of children born in 2016 were breastfed past the six-month mark. And considering that the U.S. does not have a federally mandated six-month maternity leave as some other nations do, many mothers are heading back to work with every intention of continuing to breastfeed.
The question is: How will you help them?
Breastfeeding, Work, and the Law
As it turns out, there is federal legislation that mandates a certain amount of effort. Effective March 23, 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was amended to protect employees who are breastfeeding, via the following provisions:
(r)(1) An employer shall provide—
a reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk; and
a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.
(2) An employer shall not be required to compensate an employee receiving reasonable break time under paragraph (1) for any work time spent for such purpose.
(3) An employer that employs less than 50 employees shall not be subject to the requirements of this subsection if such requirements would impose an undue hardship by causing the employer significant difficulty or expense when considered in relation to the size, financial resources, nature, or structure of the employer’s business.
(4) Nothing in this subsection shall preempt a State law that provides greater protections to employees than the protections provided for under this subsection.
So no, a bathroom will not do.
With this legislation, keep in mind that how often the mother needs to express milk can change from day to day and even throughout the day. Breasts are not a tap that one can turn off and on. They fill continuously with milk during the day at a varying rate, and once full, can cause a considerable amount of discomfort and even leakage.
In addition, mammary glands work on a supply and demand principle. If the demand (i.e., instances of pumping or of actual breastfeeding) decreases, then so does the supply. Therefore, employers must trust breastfeeding employees to capably manage both their breastfeeding needs and the needs of their job, and resist the urge to dictate how often a mother should pump.
What Else Employers Can Do to Support Breastfeeding Employees
Accommodating an employee who’s breastfeeding should be done solely for its own sake. However, there are benefits employers should consider:
- A new parent who experiences obstacles to pumping at work may reconsider her employment and start looking for a more family-friendly organization. By supporting parents, you increase engagement and retention.
- Breastfeeding lowers the risk of breast and ovarian cancers and may also lower the risk of osteoporosis.
- Supporting breastfeeding at work helps boost your employer brand as a company that treats employees with fairness and consideration.
With these benefits in mind, here are ways to make your support as effective as possible:
- The legislation does not require a power outlet in the lactation room. However, any mother using an electric pump will definitely require one. Think ahead and make sure the lactation room has accessible outlets.
- Next to those outlets, make sure there’s somewhere to sit. Even just a spare conference chair will suffice. A side table next to the chair will make it easier for the parent to set down empty or filled bottles.
- A particularly thoughtful touch is a mini-fridge so that the mother can store her expressed milk without worrying about it being contaminated (or tossed out!) in the communal kitchen fridge. For extra credit, some cold drinks in the fridge will be a welcome sight when Mom is parched from a pumping session.
- If possible locate the lactation room away from areas like meeting rooms. Breast pumps can be noisy, and the mother may feel awkward if she realizes that the “oontz-OONTZ” sound of the pump can be heard during the quarterly advisory board meeting.
Accommodating an employee who’s breastfeeding may take a little bit of effort, but it’s definitely worth it. Not only will your organization be staying on the right side of the law, but you’ll be sending an engaging, positive message to your employees that you support them no matter what life-changing events come their way. And that’s a message that turns content employees into lifelong devotees.