Keep these laws and best practices in mind to support nursing mothers in the office.
Here's what you need to know:
- Businesses that support working mothers are better able to attract and retain talent
- Making it comfortable for mothers to express eases the transition back to work
- The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide a reasonable break time for parents nursing a child
- Employers must also provide a private space, that is not a bathroom, shielded from view and intrusion from others
- Many states and counties require additional benefits for breastfeeding workers
- More than adequate space, your policies, supervisors, and staff members should value and support working moms
The transition back to work for new mothers can be challenging. They may be new to juggling the responsibilities of work and home or have a support system in place.
When you add the task of expressing milk for their new baby, the process becomes even more complicated. Businesses that support working mothers are better able to attract and retain talent.
National shortages of baby formula have highlighted the importance of nursing. For many mothers, nursing is the best option for their child. Making it comfortable for mothers to express eases the transition back to work.
Creating a physical space to do so is just the first step. Creating an environment where mothers are comfortable taking the time needed to support their child must be a top-down initiative.
What laws protect nursing mothers in the workplace?
There are laws that require businesses to provide break time for nursing mothers. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) requires employers to provide a reasonable break time for parents nursing a child up to 1 year after the child’s birth. The law requires a ‘reasonable amount of break time to express milk as frequently as needed.’
Employers must also provide a private space, that is not a bathroom, shielded from view and intrusion from others for the mother to use. For small businesses, it can be challenging to create a private space.
But the law is flexible: any space that is ‘shielded from view’ can be used as long as it can fit a chair and flat surface for any needed pumping equipment. A small refrigerator to store milk is not required under the law, but is also necessary.
As written, PPACA only covers hourly employees, but most businesses extend the rights to salaried workers, as well. As with many provisions of the ACA, these rules generally apply to businesses with 50 or more employees if providing time and space would create an undue hardship for the employer.
At the federal level, employers are not required to pay nursing mothers for the time they take away from work to pump or express. Mothers are also allowed to use their lunch and break times, if they choose. The federal government provides employers with free posters to advise employees of their rights under the law.
Many states and counties require additional benefits for breastfeeding workers. Some lower or eliminate the amount of workers employed at a company to qualify for nursing mother benefits. Others extend the duration of time, beyond 1 year past the child’s birth, to continue using the benefit.
How to create a welcoming return for working mothers
Businesses should notify staff before they go on maternity leave that separate spaces will be available on their return to express, if they’re not already available. For some small businesses, expectant mothers help create the space they will use: others set aside empty offices or storage areas.
If an employee has a private office, they may use their own space. ‘Do not disturb’ or ‘room in use’ signage is necessary. If possible, a door that locks provides even more security and privacy.
Some small businesses have very little space to spare. They may need to set up a lactation area behind a privacy screen.
If your company is in an office complex or small building, consider working with other businesses or building management to set aside space. There may be available storage or small offices on each or some floors of the building where employees from all companies can take breaks.
If you are using a shared space, provide moms with their own refrigerator at their desk or workstation to keep filled bottles.
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Supplies your workplace lactation space will need
However small or elaborate, wherever it’s located your lactation area should be well-lit, have comfortable seating and adequate electricity to plug in pumps and refrigerators. Some facilities have sinks mothers can use to clean parts and equipment. Others have microwaves available that moms use to steam-clean pump pieces.
Larger companies may provide multi-user breast pumps so mothers don’t have to carry their own equipment to work. If you’re considering multi-user pumps, poll your employees on the brand/type they prefer.
If multi-user pumps aren’t an option, consider allowing new moms keep their equipment on-site. You’ll want to provide them a key to lock their pumps up when not in use.
A refrigerator in the location is needed. Provide mothers with bins or storage containers (easily purchased at your local dollar store) with their names on them to ensure moms have a way to identify their milk.
If you don’t have multiple moms using them, consider purchasing small mom-fridges that float around the office when moms are in need. Micro- or dorm-room-sized refrigerators are inexpensive and give mothers the confidence their milk is separate and inaccessible.
Keep the room stocked with tissues and cleaning supplies, like hand sanitizer and wipes to clear off surfaces. Leather/vinyl chairs are more sanitary than cloth, particularly in shared spaces. Adequate ventilation, heating, cooling and/or fans should also be provided.
If you’re using a shared refrigerator, make sure to notify staff that bottles are strictly off-limits. There can be zero tolerance for any staff member taking or using expressed milk that’s stored in a shared refrigerator.
How to support nursing mothers at the office
More than adequate space, your policies should value working moms. Notify staff members and supervisors of your support. Make sure supervisors understand their responsibilities under the law and your organization’s commitment. Colleagues and coworkers should be notified that whenever mothers need to take a break, they should be encouraged to do so.
Breaks may be predictable: some mothers get into a rhythm and take their breaks relatively consistently. For these, it can be easy to provide coverage when the employee is on break. Other times, the need for a break may be unexpected. Remind coworkers they should help provide coverage for all breaks, if needed, even when unexpected.
More than adequate space, your policies should value working moms.
Some moms don’t need coverage in their absence. For these, ask them to let someone know they’re taking a break or put up a ‘Be Right Back’ sign on their door or workstation.
Supervisors (and coworkers) must allow reasonable time for moms to express milk whenever needed throughout the day. For supervisors unfamiliar with nursing, the federal government provides guidance on what is a ‘reasonable time.’ They advise pumping typically occurs every 2 to 3 hours, up to 3 times in an 8-hour day.
Generally it can take 15 to 20 minutes to express milk, but it can depend on the age of the child and the mother’s comfort and experience using a pump. New mothers often have more difficultly getting started, particularly in a new space. In addition, they’ll need time to get to and from the lactation space.
Advanced lactation policies that are possibilities
Some companies have more creative ways to help mothers in the workplace. Many allow caregivers to bring infants to work for mothers to feed babies on the job. Others allow mothers to leave the workplace (if travel time isn’t prohibitive) to nurse their child.
Remote work is another option companies provide for nursing mothers; still others allow new moms to bring their infants to work full-time.
However your organization supports nursing mothers, the benefits to the employee, their child, and your workplace are great. Your support of new mothers helps them provide what many consider the best possible nutrition for their child.
A welcoming lactation policy allows an easy transition back to work, which is great for attracting and retaining talent. Nursing is typically short-term. Many mothers stop nursing their child at 1 year.
Your support of mothers during that time can mean retaining a long-term, valued staff member. You’ll find high morale and loyalty when your organization supports working mothers and their families.