Motherhood is tough. Working outside the home while also being a mom is even tougher. Federal lawmakers recently approved the PUMP Act, attempting to make breastfeeding a little easier for working moms.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) previously required employers to provide a place (that is not a bathroom) and unpaid break time for mothers to express breast milk for the first year after birth. The PUMP Act builds on this law. First, the PUMP Act requires accommodations for nursing mothers for two years after birth. Second, it makes clear that while this is an absolute requirement for employers with fifty or more employees, smaller employers are also subject to the law. Employers with fewer than fifty employees have the burden of showing an undue hardship to avoid the Act’s requirements. Additionally, the Act specifies that if the employee is not relieved of ALL duties during the break, it must be counted as working time and paid accordingly.
South Carolina passed the Lactation Support Act (LSA) in the summer of 2020. The state requires all employers (no matter the size) to provide unpaid break time for an employee to express breast milk. However, the LSA has significant caveats—specifically, that employers are only required to “make reasonable efforts” to provide a space for pumping, that these lactation breaks must run concurrently with other breaks already provided, and that the employer can completely avoid all requirements if they show an undue hardship (i.e. significant difficulty or expense).
In my view, these laws do the bare minimum. What then can employers and employees do to better navigate lactation policies?
I think this is an area where employers can really distinguish themselves in how they support their employees.
First, employers need to know the law and help their new mothers know what options are available to them. New moms are already navigating SO many things, so having an employer pro-actively seek to help is HUGE. It allows the employee to feel supported and comfortable talking to the employer about what can sometimes be viewed as an awkward workplace topic.
Second, employers need to make plans before the mother returns to work. The first day back after maternity leave is already incredibly hard and made much worse by immediately having to fight for the right to feed your baby. Being prepared beforehand will help the transition back to work be smoother for the employee and ensures the employer isn’t left scrambling to comply with the law. Have a plan but be willing to adapt as needed because…
Third, but most importantly, employers need to listen to their employees. If you ask and listen, these working moms can tell you what they need. In many cases, the employee wants to work and be productive just as much as the employer does. Knowing their routine and work responsibilities better than anyone else, the employee can propose ideas and solutions that may not be obvious to the employer and that work better for everyone involved. Don’t hinder that ingenuity!
What best demonstrates this is the story of one client I worked with who was employed by a government contractor. She was not doing desk work and, therefore, could not work if stuck in a room to pump. Because these breaks were unpaid, she was having to extend her shift by nearly an hour to have the same amount of paid time as before. This meant less time with her new baby. Though the employer was technically complying with the law, this wasn’t working for the employee. Her solution? She wanted to use a wearable, handsfree pump(1) while continuing to do her work. She could then use her regular bathroom breaks to take them on or off and did not have to stay additional hours. This was a win-win situation!
But here’s where the employer tripped up. Their policies did not contemplate use of a pump while on the work floor, so they didn’t know what “box” to fit this into. The employee was sent in circles. First, she was told the wearable pump just had to pass security (which it did). Then, the employer changed course and told her to go through the onerous paperwork process to approve a “medical device” (think: insulin pump). Eventually, we got the attention of the legal department and the employer paused, used some common sense, and helped the employee enact her original plan (which worked wonderfully for everyone!).
While this scenario ended well, it illustrates the unnecessary stress and anxiety many working moms face in their first days back at work. So many are forced to choose between providing milk for their baby and getting enough hours/pay by staying away from their baby longer. By planning ahead and collaborating with employees, employers can remove these needless worries, allow working moms to have a real choice in how they feed their babies, and enable the employee to focus on their work. Employers that choose to show support of working mothers will find the benefits come back to them 10-fold!
(1) A note about these pumps. They are not typically covered by insurance and tend to be much more expensive, so not every person may be able to afford them. I’ve also heard that these pumps do not have the same suction power as other pump styles. Finally, each mother has different needs to be successful with pumping; working while pumping may not be feasible for every employee.