Question: Can you clarify the law regarding break time for nursing mothers? What is meant by “reasonable break time?” Does this mean employees can take the break anytime they want, even if the department is particularly busy?
The Federal Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) created employer obligations with regard to break time for nursing mothers. Under the ACA, an employer is required to provide “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.” Employers are also required to provide “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.”
This section of the ACA is implemented through the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), and applies only to “non-exempt” employees, unless state law requires otherwise. Therefore, if you operate in a state that does not have a specific law addressing lactation or pregnancy-related accommodations, you are only legally obligated to provide break time for nursing to your non-exempt employees. The Department of Labor “encourages employers to provide breaks to all nursing mothers regardless of their status under the FLSA.” And, we recommend, as a best practice, that employers provide break time to all nursing mothers, regardless of whether the employee is exempt or non-exempt.
Depending on the states in which it operates, an employer may have state-specific obligations. For example, as of April 1, 2018, Massachusetts employers must comply with the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations for an employee’s “pregnancy or any condition related to the employee’s pregnancy,” including the need to express breast milk. The Act indicates that accommodations may include: a) more frequent or longer paid or unpaid breaks; and b) a private non-bathroom space for expressing breast milk. (The Act provides a longer list of example accommodations; I’ve simply highlighted two here.)
State-specific employee protections are certainly not limited to Massachusetts. Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, D.C., Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Oregon all have laws that protect workplace lactation. (This interactive MAP provides a nice summary.)
So, how many breaks are reasonable? For how long? The ACA does not define “reasonable” break time and the guidance is limited. The DOL indicates that break time should be provided “as frequently as needed by the nursing mother” and that “the frequency of breaks needed to express breast milk as well as the duration of each break will likely vary.”
While we can’t rely on this as official guidance, the US Department of Health and Human Services provides an “Employees’ Guide to Breastfeeding and Working” that indicates the following in the “When to Express Milk” section: “Express milk for 10-15 minutes approximately 2-3 times during a typical 8-hour work period. Remember that in the first months of life babies need to breastfeed 8-12 times in 24 hours. So you need to express and store milk during those usual feeding times when you are away from your baby. This will maintain a sufficient amount of milk for your childcare provider to feed your baby while you are at work. The number of times you need to express milk at work should be equal to the number of feedings your baby will need while you are away. As the baby gets older, the number of feeding times may decrease. When babies are around 6 months old and begin solid foods, they often need to feed less often. Many women take their regular breaks and lunch period to pump. Others talk to their supervisor about coming in early and/or staying late to make up the time needed to express milk. It usually takes 15 minutes to express milk, plus time to get to and from the lactation room.” (https://www.womenshealth.gov/files/assets/docs/breastfeeding/business-case/employee’s-guide-to-breastfeeding-and-working.pdf)
Because the frequency and duration are dictated by the needs of the employee/nursing mother, you, as the employer, are somewhat limited in what you can do. However, there are some things to consider:
- Minimize unnecessary breaks by requiring the use of PTO or by making them unpaid (to the extent permitted). The law does not require that the breaks be paid, unless the employer provides paid breaks. Even then, the employer is not required to pay for all breaks, only the number stated in the employer’s policy. If you provide two paid breaks to your employees, nursing mothers would be allowed to take two of her nursing breaks as paid, but any beyond that could be unpaid/use PTO. Remember, you can’t dock an exempt employee’s pay based on the quantity of work performed. But, you can deduct from a PTO bank.
- Talk to the employee(s). Nothing in the law prohibits or limits an employer’s right to talk to the employee about how to most effectively schedule the breaks. You are well within your rights to meet with this employee (or any/all employees who request additional break time) and discuss different ideas for accommodating the employee’s needs while also causing the least amount of disruption to the company.