February 22, 2012
Making milk on the clock? Know your rights
After reading recently about the federal judge's ruling against a Houston mother who says she was fired after asking for a place to pump breast milk, I felt momentarily glad for the situation I faced when I went back to work after having each of my two babies.
After all, I never got fired for asking to pump milk, the method of nutrition that is now supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics for at least one year and is proven to cut down on childhood illness and therefore reduce parents' work absences. I did pump milk for each baby: I must have been one of the lucky ones, I thought.
Then I found out that, if my first baby hadn't come several years before the 2010 law that now exists to protect many -- but not all -- lactating mothers, my own company would have been in violation of federal requirements regarding lactating employees.
Though my large company provided a "privacy" room at its main building, I worked in a satellite office, a small, open suite in a downtown high-rise. When I asked my boss ahead of my return about pumping, he said he didn't know and suggested I ask the high-rise building management company. Of course, they had no reason to accommodate me, but a kind manager took sympathy and offered me the use of a vacant suite on our floor (if and until it was leased, in which case I'd obviously be evicted).
It was in that suite, empty but for a metal chair (and no window blinds), that I pumped milk for my baby for six months, much of that through the winter. Did I mention that this vacant suite was not heated?
Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are required to provide "reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child's birth."
Employers are also required to provide, as frequently as needed, "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."
The devil, of course, is in the details. So it helps to know your rights:
• Only employees who are not exempt from the FLSA's overtime pay requirements (that is, hourly employees) are entitled to breaks to express milk.
• Employers with fewer than 50 employees are not subject to the FLSA requirement if compliance would impose an undue hardship (employees, take note: Those employers must apply for that undue hardship).
• Employers covered by the FLSA are not required to compensate nursing employees for breaks taken for the purpose of expressing milk, but where they already provide employees breaks those may be used for pumping.
Rachel Schwartz, manager at the Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington, said current protections will hopefully be expanded next year to include smaller employers and salaried employees. She also noted, as the Texas case illustrated, that while employers are fined for non-compliance, the current law mentions nothing about the issue of a firing-for-lactating situation.
"Know your rights," she advises mothers planning to return to work while nursing.
The coalition has excellent resources and support: http://www.breastfeedingwa.org/working
I am thankful, and proud, that I was able to pump milk (anyone who thinks it is easy should do some research on what it entails to manufacture and express the perfect human food), even if the space I had to pump was, to put it mildly, a little less than desired, and the process I went through to gain that space more awkward that it needed to be.
Hopefully more employers, and lawmakers, will realize that it benefits the entire system to facilitate lactating employees. As with any workplace culture shift, change follows demand.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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