Know Your Rights When it Comes to Breastfeeding at Work

My employer refused to allow me to express milk at work for breastfeeding. What are my breastfeeding rights?

Photo courtesy of Lysenko Andrii

Are you a mom juggling the demands of work and motherhood?

If you consider breastfeeding is the way to go for your little one, you might encounter some challenges when it comes to doing it at work. It’s crucial to know your breastfeeding rights at work so that you can confidently breastfeed or pump milk while on the job without any hassle.

Know how different laws for breast pumping at work and other pregnancy-related matters will protect your rights as you welcome your bundle of joy. 

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act

Federal law protects female workers in various aspects of pregnancy, including breastfeeding. Women have filed more than 50,000 discrimination claims in the past 10 years, underscoring the importance of companies taking breastfeeding laws at work seriously.

Most pregnancy-related cases rely on the protections under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978. The law mandates that employers treat pregnancy the same way they would treat a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Consequently, discrimination based on pregnancy, breast-pumping at work, or related family matters is strictly prohibited.

An employer must treat a pregnant employee like other workers regarding their “ability or inability to work.” Those who treat pregnant or expectant mothers differently from other workers simply because they are pregnant may violate existing laws such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the ADA.

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 also affords mothers protection for breastfeeding while working. It states employers must provide sufficient break time for pregnant mothers and space to pump breastmilk at work. The break time must be reasonable, and the area should be accommodation other than a bathroom for employers to be in full compliance.

Pregnancy Protection Under State Laws

The recent surge in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charges and wins at the federal level has prompted states to provide increased protection for pregnant mothers and workers addressing family responsibilities at work. New York, Illinois, and California all have explicit rights, including the right to breastfeed and pump milk.

For instance, California’s Resolution No. 55 supports the accommodation for breastfeeding at work and expressing milk and advises the Governor to ensure these projects are safeguarded. In addition, the California Labor Code mandates that employers have breastfeeding in the workplace policy, which can include providing break time and a private space other than a toilet stall for lactation support. 

Municipalities and local laws have expanded protections, too. Even at the city level, most pregnant workers have the right to pump milk and breastfeed at work. 

Why Breastfeeding Protection Matters

The expansion and recognition of breastfeeding rights result from legislators’ awareness of the increased pressures of family responsibilities in today’s employment landscape.

Family responsibility is a top issue as women rise in the employment ranks and the American population ages. More and more Americans are balancing the responsibility of caring for small children, starting families, or even caring for elderly relatives.

Employers do not always recognize the importance of fairly dealing with workers with these responsibilities. A recent study by the University of Minnesota revealed that 60% of mothers returning to work post-pregnancy do not have access to proper time or space to breastfeed despite federal, state, and local legal breastfeeding laws.

Fortunately, the law provides mothers with legal recourse for violations of breastfeeding rights. The PDA, in particular, mandates that employers must provide reasonable accommodations for breastfeeding when requested.

Here’s a concise list of the rights a breastfeeding mother is entitled to:

1. Reasonable accommodation

As mentioned, employers are legally obligated to provide reasonable accommodations to breastfeeding mothers under the PDA. 

If you’re a mom breastfeeding in the workplace, your employer must adjust your work environment or schedule to allow you to express milk or breastfeed your child without facing undue hardship. These accommodations may include flexible work breaks and a modified work schedule.

2. Time and space

Breastfeeding mothers have the right to access proper time and a suitable space for breastfeeding or pumping at work. This ensures you can meet your child’s nutritional needs without compromising employment.

You are entitled to reasonable break times to express milk or breastfeed your baby. Breaks should be long enough to accommodate the time for nursing or pumping. Your employer must also provide a designated space that’s not a bathroom. It should be clean, private, and equipped with essentials like a comfortable chair, electrical outlets, and a refrigerator for milk storage.

3. Legal recourse

Should your company violate your breastfeeding rights, the law offers a pathway for legal recourse. You can file a formal complaint with relevant government agencies like the EEOC. They can investigate the violation and take appropriate action. You also have the right to consult an attorney who specializes in employment law.

In some cases, the court may entitle you to compensation or damages for any harm caused by the violation of your breastfeeding rights.

FLSA Specifics for Breastfeeding and Pregnancy Protection

In 2014, the EEOC released enforcement guidance concerning pregnancy discrimination. Here, the agency emphasized that the Affordable Care Act provides breastfeeding rights. These rules mean that mothers may request time for breastfeeding and a suitable location. An employer must comply with the request or face litigation under the law.

If an employer refuses, the employee may also turn to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for protection. The FLSA states that break time and adequate space for breastfeeding must be provided for at least a year after a worker gives birth.

The law seems to have had some effect, as discrimination charges decreased from 2010 to 2022. While there were over 4,029 received cases in 2010, data for the following year showed that the number went down to around 2,273, marking an improvement.

Advances in pregnancy leave under the PDA and FMLA

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This vital piece of legislation protects pregnant employees from workplace discrimination. 

Under the PDA, employers are prohibited from treating employees unfavorably due to pregnancy and its related medical conditions. Employers cannot make employment decisions like hiring, firing, promotions, or job assignments based on an employee’s pregnancy status.

Another federal law, the Family and Medical Leave Act, protects pregnant and other eligible employees by providing up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a year for specified family and medical reasons. Under this law, employees can take leave without the fear of losing their job or health insurance.

Beyond getting time and space for breastfeeding as an equal right under the law, mothers also have access to leaves associated with pregnancy and child caregiving. 

For instance, a parent may need time off to care for a sick newborn or to return to the doctor’s office for follow-up checks or matters concerning breastfeeding. It’s important to know that this is also protected under federal and state law.

The basic premise is that mothers cannot be treated differently than other workers receiving similar types of leave. This means a pregnant worker or new mother who uses vacation time to care for their baby cannot be forced to use all their sick days first if other workers are not required to do the same. 

Additional protection is available for mothers returning to work after a leave of absence. Employers must allow workers to return to their same job and position to abide by the law fully.

What to do when breastfeeding rights are challenged

As a mother, you have rights regarding breastfeeding or breastfeeding during work hours. When employers refuse to allow breastfeeding or expressing milk, the best action is to contact your attorney as soon as possible. 

A qualified employment rights attorney can help pregnant and new mothers navigate the grievance process and the filing of a complaint with the EEOC under federal or state laws. A pregnancy discrimination attorney can also help workers see the big-picture view of litigation throughout the process.

Being a mother at work is not easy, but with the solid assistance of an expert attorney, it doesn’t have to mean forfeiting your rights.

Disclaimer: None of the aforementioned information should be construed as legal advice. Likewise, contacting us via our website does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Please consult with a competent and qualified attorney to discuss your specific situation before taking action on your own.

Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Breastfeeding Discrimination

1. Can I file a complaint against my employer for unfair dismissal based on breastfeeding discrimination? 

An employer may not discriminate against an employee on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. You can take legal action if you believe you were unfairly dismissed due to breastfeeding discrimination It is highly recommended that you contact an employment attorney for an evaluation before making any decisions. Discussing your situation with an employment attorney will ensure you are taking the necessary steps to protect yourself against pregnancy discrimination. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act and other federal and state laws protect your right to be free from discrimination based on pregnancy-related issues, including breastfeeding.

2. What are the specific federal laws that protect breastfeeding rights at work?

The PDA and Family and Medical Leave Act are key federal laws protecting breastfeeding rights. The PDA prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy-related conditions, including lactation, while the FMLA states that eligible workers can take unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons, including the need to express milk for a nursing child.

3. Can my employer require me to use a restroom for breastfeeding or pumping at work?

No, your employer cannot require you to use a restroom for breastfeeding or pumping. Federal and state laws mandate employers to provide a private and sanitary space other than a bathroom for breastfeeding mothers. If your employer is not complying with these regulations, discuss the matter with your HR department to understand if your rights are being violated.

Manuela Varela

Relations Manager

Manuela Varela has been with Shegerian & Associates since August 2022. She is responsible for outreach and marketing on behalf of the firm and manages relationships between firms and referring attorneys. She is also responsible for developing business opportunities and affiliations. Manuela graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in Economics and Political Science.