What Is the Labor Law for Pumping Breast Milk at Work?

By Beth Wankel
bottle image by drjay from Fotolia.com

The general consensus among doctors and mothers on feeding an infant is definitely that "breast is best." But mothers who go back to work when their babies are still very young have a difficult time providing milk. If they choose not to supplement with formula, they must then pump all day long while they are at work, both to provide a milk supply for the secondary caregiver and to keep their milk supply coming. But just what are the laws protecting moms who pump at work?

Employer Awareness

The first hurdle for a mother who wants to pump her breast milk at work is getting her employer to fully understand the importance of the situation and to allow some workplace changes. Many employers are simply uninformed about the issue, and may not realize that the mother needs workplace support to make things happen.

Designated Areas

Many understanding employers have provided a private, dedicated pumping station for mothers to use at their discretion, which can vary from company to company. However, there are no laws regarding this designation, so the designated pumping area may not be a private, out-of-the way room. It may simply be the employee's office or cubicle, or even the restroom.

The Laws

There is no federal law protecting a mother's right to pump in her workplace. There are state laws in place, however these laws vary greatly from state to state and are arbitrarily enforced. There are 12 states that have statutes that maintain a woman's right to pump in the workplace: Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Tennessee, Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oregon, Montana, California and Hawaii. Georgia and Oklahoma have laws saying that an employer "may" allow pumping at work, which does not bind them to anything at all. Some states have laws that allow an employer to refuse a woman's right to pump in certain areas, and there are no laws at all that allow extra breaks or meal times to allow for pumping. And there are only three states--California, Oregon and Hawaii--that have actual penalties for employers that don't comply with breast-feeding laws.

Why It's Not Always Allowed

Cate Colburn-Smith, co-author (with Andrea Serrette) of "The Milk Memos: How Real Moms Learned to Mix Business with Babies---and How You Can, Too" has said that an employer's hesitance to protect an employee's right to pump in the workplace is that they feel there is such a low demand for it, they'd rather not put it into practice and designate a specific area (see "Mothering" article). However, she feels that the low demand is more a product of women being afraid to bring it up with their employer. There is also an issue of fairness with employees that don't need to pump. They sometimes feel like the woman is getting special treatment, with time to pump and a special place to do it. These complaints seem to stem also from misinformation and unawareness.

What You Can Do

If your workplace has a private pumping area, and you're allotted time for pumping, take advantage of the opportunity. If not, you'll need to assert yourself with your employer. Bring it up in a professional and non-confrontational manner. Let them know of your needs, and if applicable in your state, your rights. Be prepared for questions and objections from coworkers. The more women that speak up and ask for these rights, the more employers the world over are bound to provide what is needed.

About the Author

Beth Wankel is currently working as a freelance writer, editor and as a parenting blogger. She holds a bachelor's degree in English, with a minor in print journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She has several years of professional writing and editing experience, namely web writing. Wankel resides in San Francisco with her husband and young son.