The laws dictating how employers must meet the needs of nursing mothers have changed significantly as the number of career moms in the workforce has risen. Breastfeeding mothers are now federally protected under both the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Affordable Care Act. These women are entitled by law to several additional benefits, although there are some exclusions based on the size of an employer or occupation. State laws vary, and when they exist, often add more benefits for these nursing women.
Under the federal guidelines, mothers must be given a reasonable number of break times to breastfeed or express milk for their infant. This time is granted for up to one year after the birth of the child. Some states allow for longer time periods, extending the privilege for mothers who choose to nurse a child beyond the one-year mark.
These rights are only granted to employees covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which means there are several exclusions. Many executives and salaried employees do not fall under the umbrella of this legislation, which has prompted several states to define their own, substantially more inclusive, regulations. In cases where state laws offer wider coverage, employers must abide by the state guidelines.
Another important allowance granted by national laws is a private place in which to express milk. This area must not be a bathroom and has to meet several other qualifications. The location needs to offer privacy from view and interruptions by coworkers and the public.
Pay and Exclusions
While national laws do not mandate that these breaks be paid, if a mother already has paid leave time during the day, she is allowed to use those respites to express milk or, in some instances, feed her child. For workplaces with on-site child care, some states indicate that mothers are allowed to use break time to personally nurse their children.
Any employee exempt from coverage by the Fair Labor Standards Act is technically not granted these breaks or benefits under federal standards. These include, but are not limited to the following:
- Executives, professionals or administrative employees paid on a salary basis
- Independent contractors
- Some high-wage computer specialists
- Criminal investigators
- Small farm laborers
- Switchboard operators
Due to the way national regulations are written, hourly nursing moms are covered, while their executive, salaried bosses are not. This conflict has prompted many states to enact separate, more inclusive, sets of guidelines. State laws do not exclude based on position, and knowing both sets of regulations is imperative for compliance.
Nationally, companies with fewer than 50 workers are not technically required by law to provide breaks for nursing moms if it would cause undue hardship to the business. Employees of these corporations are still covered under any existing state guidelines, which do not grant exceptions based on company size. For example, Illinois’s Nursing Mothers in the Workplace Act extends benefit coverage to employees of all businesses with five or more workers and doesn’t allow businesses to exclude breaks based on hardship.
Protection against discrimination and retaliation toward breastfeeding mothers is granted by both national and state guidelines. Employers may not retaliate against a woman for exerting her rights or filing a complaint under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Several state statutes also indicate that lactating women may not be discriminated against in the workplace, extending protection further than the federal guidelines.
Understanding the laws is the first step in providing nursing mothers with all the benefits they are granted by law. Creating a private space and allowing needed breaks will ensure that lactating women are able to care for their children and complete their work tasks simultaneously. Open communication regarding break periods, private quarters and company support for these workers will go a long way in creating an encouraging work environment for these employees.
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