Last week, a Nevada bank teller sued her employer for allegedly violating federal anti-discrimination laws by berating her and retaliating against her for requesting a private space to pump breastmilk. This lawsuit reminds employers that various federal, state, and local laws provide protections for nursing mothers. Because lactation is a pregnancy-related medical condition, less favorable treatment of a nursing mother can raise an inference of unlawful discrimination. Additionally, the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to provide “reasonable break time” and a private place, that is not a bathroom, for nonexempt (hourly) employees to pump breastmilk for up to one year after the child’s birth.
A growing number of state and local laws provide even greater protections for nursing mothers. For instance, in the beginning of 2018, New Jersey added breastfeeding as a protected class under its Law Against Discrimination and now requires employers to reasonably accommodate nursing mothers. Similarly, on the local level, the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance requires that Philadelphia employers reasonably accommodate nursing mothers. Reasonable accommodations can include: providing unpaid break time; allowing an employee to use paid break time and/or mealtime; and providing a private, sanitary space that is not a bathroom.
Supporting nursing moms at work is not only required by many federal, state, and local laws, but it can also have a positive impact on morale and the bottom line. Studies suggest that breastfeeding has health benefits for mother and baby. As a result, employers may see reduced healthcare costs and less employee time away from work. Productive, satisfied, and experienced employees mean less employee turnover and lower costs in recruiting and training.
Employers should adopt lactation policies to ensure compliance with existing laws and provide support for the health of employees and their families. A lactation policy can help managers know how to support employees returning from maternity leave and help employees prepare for the return to work. In addition to a lactation policy, employers should maintain and disseminate strong anti-harassment policies that incorporate information about pregnancy-related harassment, including harassment of breastfeeding employees. As with any policy, employers should periodically train managers and employees on the policies’ contents and procedures.