Pumping Laws at Work Explained

An explanation of US breastfeeding laws in the workplace.

A woman working on a laptop while pumping. Used as an illustration for pumping laws at work.

Did you know that more than 80% of new moms in the United States begin breastfeeding?  And that 6 out of 10 new mothers in the US are working moms?  That means the majority of new mothers are working breastfeeding moms.  Solidarity!

As a working breastfeeding mom, the government has pumping laws and protections in place to help you continue your breastfeeding journey at work.  The federal government understands the numerous benefits of breastfeeding for infants and mothers.  Accordingly, the government has passed pumping laws at work to encourage breastfeeding in the workplace.

Related article: The Top 3 Best Breast Pumps for Working Moms

In conjunction with pumping laws at work, the US Department of Health and Human Services has several national goals related to breastfeeding as part of the Healthy People 2020 campaign.  The Healthy People 2020 campaign was unveiled in 2010 as a preventative agenda for building a healthier nation.  It identified the most significant preventable threats to national health, and objectives for reducing those threats.  The breastfeeding objectives include:

  • Increasing the proportion of infants who are ever breastfed
    • Baseline: 74% in 2006
    • Goal: 81.9% by 2020
  • Increase the proportion of infants who are breastfed at 6 months:
    • Baseline: 43.5% in 2006
    • Goal: 60.6% by 2020
  • Increase the proportion of infants who are breastfed at 1 year
    • Baseline: 22.7% in 2006
    • Goal: 34.1% by 2020

And probably the most relevant to working breastfeeding moms:

  • Increase the proportion of employers that have worksite lactation support programs
    • Baseline: 25% of employers reported providing an onsite lactation/mother’s room in 2009
    • Goal: 38% by 2020

Related article: The Complete Guide on How to Pump at Work Successfully

What exactly are the pumping laws at work?

In 2010, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  Included in the ACA was an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 which included a “Break Time for Nursing Mothers” provision (see bottom of page 5 of US Code 4207).  The provision indicated:

  • An employer shall allow reasonable break time(s) for an employee to pump breast milk for one year after the birth of a child each time the employee needs to express milk
    • Employers are not required to pay nursing mothers for pumping breaks taken.  However, if employers already provide compensated breaks (ex. smoke breaks, lunch breaks, etc.), an employee who uses that break time to pump milk must be compensated in the same way that other employees are compensated for break time.
    • The FLSA requires that the employee be completely relieved from duty or else time must be compensated as work time applies.
    • The provision allows protection for a breastfeeding mother’s right to pump milk for one year after the birth of a child.  The law does not cover pumping beyond one year.
  • An employer must provide a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion by coworkers
    • This does not have to be a permanent, dedicated space.  A space that is temporarily created or converted, shielded from view and free from intrusion, is sufficient.
    • If the space is not dedicated specifically for a breastfeeding mother (ex. a conference room), the space must be available when needed in order to meet the statutory requirement.
    • The statue specifically states that the space provided cannot be a bathroom, even if it is a private bathroom.

Related article: How Often Should I Pump at Work?

What employers are exempt from pumping laws at work?

Even though all employers are subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers with fewer than 50 employees can seek exemption from pumping laws at work if the employer can demonstrate that allowing a breastfeeding mom to take pumping breaks would inflict an undue hardship. 

Determining “undue hardship” is done on a case-by-case basis, and is considered in relation to size, financials, industry, and structure of the employer’s business.  This is typically a lengthy process, and the exemption must be granted by the Department of Labor.  If your employer decides to go this route, they must comply with the FLSA breastfeeding laws until they are granted an exemption.  That means they must allow you to pump and provide a space for you to pump until a decision is reached.

Are there pumping laws in individual states?

It depends on the state.

The information included so far in this article reflects federal law.  The final provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act states that the Act does not preempt a state breastfeeding law that provides greater protections to employees.  That means if you live in a state that has passed even more progressive and protective laws for working breastfeeding mothers, your state breastfeeding laws surpass federal laws.  Over twenty states have enacted workplace breastfeeding laws.  Most of these pumping laws are similar to the FLSA in that they allow for unpaid breaks for pumping milk.

Find your state on this interactive map from the US Department of Labor to see if state-level workplace breastfeeding rights exist where you live.  If your state does not have pumping laws at work in place, the federal FLSA will guide you and your employer on what is legal for pumping moms.

Are there resources explaining breastfeeding laws to employers?

If you are the first pumping mom your employer has had to accommodate, they may be overwhelmed or confused about what exactly to do.  There are resources you can share with your employer that explain pumping at work laws beyond the actual statute.  You can email or communicate the following with your employer to help them understand how they can support you breastfeeding at work:

We encourage you to speak with your manager or HR department about pumping break times and space prior to your maternity leave.  This will ensure that you are not having to deal with workplace stress at the same time as leaving your baby for the first time.

Keep in mind also that there are no specific regulations for the implementation of the Break Time for Nursing Mothers provision. This is due to the wide variety of workplace environments, work schedules, and individual factors for breastfeeding mothers and employers.  That means interpretation and enactment of the pumping laws at work will vary from industry to industry.

What if I am discriminated against for pumping at work?

If you feel like you have been discriminated against because of your choice to pump milk at work, contact your company’s HR department.  Let your HR department know all of your concerns, but also try to present solutions.  You may be the first pumping mom your company has had to accommodate.  While it is absolutely your employer’s responsibility to accommodate you and there is never room for discrimination, presenting your ideas for a solution will help them address the issue in a manner that may be beneficial to you.

If you need to escalate it further, you can contact the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) toll-free at 1-800-487-9243.  WHD is the governmental arm responsible for enforcing the Breast Time for Nursing Mothers provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  You also have the right to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (find your closest office here) to file a charge of discrimination.  Note that you have to file within 180 days of the alleged discrimination. 

Regardless of where you file your complaint, make sure to have as much documentation as possible. This includes any emails, hand written notes, videos, voice recordings, and your own notes documenting the dates, times, and nature of the alleged discrimination or harassment.

Final Thoughts

Interestingly and dishearteningly, a study published in 2015 revealed that only 40% of working mothers had accesses to both break time and private space to pump at work.  Working breastfeeding moms who had both adequate break time and space were 2.3 times more likely to be exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months.  They were also 1.5 times more likely to continue breastfeeding with each passing month compared to working moms who did not have break time and/or a private space to pump at work. 

Despite our nation having pumping laws at work, the majority of working moms do not have the accommodations the law affords them.  There are clearly still many barriers to breastfeeding for working moms.  Fixing these hurdles will entail collaboration between employers, governmental health agencies, medical providers, and working mothers.  We wish you the very best in your breastfeeding journey, and hope that you can help pave the way for working breastfeeding moms who come after you.

US breast pumping laws at work explained! Individual state pumping laws, stats on why pumping at work is so important, and print outs for your boss. | Work Breastfeed Mom #breastmilk #pumpingtips