When new parents return to work after maternity leave, one of their main concerns may be the challenge of pumping milk at work. Between finding time and space to pump, making sure to pack a breast pump, and figuring out where and how to store milk, pumping can feel like an overwhelming part of returning to work. By providing a comfortable space for pumping and communicating policies to employees, employers can ease the transition back to the office and help remove any stigma. 

Federal law also requires employers to provide lactating parents with time and a private space to pump milk. The current law requires this accommodation for parents up to one year after the child’s birth. This applies each time the employee needs to pump milk–which usually adds up to about one hour in an eight-hour workday. Here’s how you can support your employees during this critical time of change.  

What are the benefits of providing pumping breaks at work?

Companies that provide family-friendly policies and strive to give employees a work-life balance see higher productivity, healthier employees, and lower turnover. Letting your employees know about the company’s pumping break policy before they go out on maternity leave helps them feel valued and supported when they return. Here’s how providing pumping breaks benefits employers—in addition to complying with the law.

  • Supporting new parents can help you retain good employees. Replacing an employee can cost up to four times the position’s salary. Keeping good talent benefits the company’s bottom line.
  • Providing the time and space for new parents to breastfeed reduces sick time. Breastfed babies have fewer sick days that require a caregiver to stay home. Longer duration and intensity of breastfeeding is associated with fewer ear, sinus, and throat infections. The protection appears to last until the child is school age, research shows
  • Encouraging breastfeeding reduces healthcare costs. Breastfed babies get sick less often, which saves on the cost of pediatrician visits. When breastfed babies do get sick, they need fewer medications and are less likely to be hospitalized than formula-fed babies.
  • Employer support helps reduce employee stress. Women frequently cite returning to work as a top reason for stopping breastfeeding. The pressure mounts when they feel judged at work or the unexpected happens, like the baby formula shortage in 2022. With their employer’s support, women are more likely to continue pumping milk for their babies. 

Remember, providing time and space to an employee is temporary. But when they receive support, employees are more productive and loyal to the company.

Pumping at work laws

The Fair Labor Standards Act lays out what an employer must provide employees who need to pump milk at work. Currently, workplace lactation accommodations for salaried employee are not protected by the FLSA. The requirements specifically protect employees paid on an hourly basis. Employers are required to:

  • Allow reasonable break time for the parent to pump milk for their child. The length and frequency of the break needs will vary. Expect your employee to pump every two to three hours.
  • Completely relieve employees of their work duties during their pumping break, though some employees will choose to continue working during this time. For hourly employees, the breaks do not need to be paid unless the employee is working while pumping.
  • Provide a private space where the employee won’t be interrupted or in view of colleagues or the public. The space doesn’t have to be exclusively for pumping, but it must be available when the employee needs it. The space cannot be a bathroom as it is not a sanitary place to prepare food.

Employers with fewer than 50 employees can apply for an exemption to these rules if providing pumping breaks would be an undue hardship. This could be due to the cost involved or the nature of the employee’s work. The requirements do not apply to employees who are exempt from overtime pay, which usually means salaried employees.

States may have different laws

The Fair Labor Standards Act states the minimum time and space that employers in the United States must allow their employees who are breastfeeding to pump breast milk. But 30 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico have their own laws about pumping in the workplace. New York, for example, requires pumping breaks for up to three years for all employees, regardless of the size of the company. Employers must also notify employees of their right to pump at work. For specifics, check your state’s Department of Labor website.

What is considered “reasonable break time” for nursing moms?

The frequency and duration of pumping sessions varies from person to person. New parents will typically pump two to three times in an eight-hour work day, with each session lasting  around 20 to 30 minutes. A parent’s pumping needs will decrease as the child starts eating solid foods.

Employers can help by:

  • Providing a comfortable chair and quiet space. Milk expression is usually smoother when the parent isn’t stressed. The space should include an outlet for the breast pump, a table to set supplies on, and a sink nearby for cleanup. A designated refrigerator for milk storage is nice, but space in a shared refrigerator is also appropriate.
  • Encouraging new parents to discuss their needs. Some employees might feel uncomfortable asking for support or accommodations for pumping. Supervisors can provide reassurance by discussing the policy, explaining how the employee’s work will be covered while they are on break, or encouraging the employee to block their calendar for pumping breaks. 
  • Reminding employees of the policy for pumping breaks and encouraging colleagues to support one another. 

Sample pumping break / lactation break policy

Having a policy in place when an employee goes out on maternity leave can help make the return-to-work smoother. Here’s an example of a lactation break policy to share with all employees:

We support our employees and the health of their families. As such, we encourage new parents to pump milk for their babies with the following policy.

1. Employees are encouraged to talk to their supervisors about their needs when returning to work after parental leave. Employees cannot be penalized for taking time to pump milk at work for their child.

2. Employees will be provided a private room with a lock to pump milk. The room will be sanitary and include an electrical outlet, chair, table, and nearby access to running water. Employees may use their private office area for breastfeeding or milk expression, if they prefer.

3. A refrigerator will be made available for storage of expressed breast milk. Employees should provide their own containers clearly labeled with name and date. If an employee prefers, they may use their own cooler.

4. Employees may take flexible breaks to accommodate milk expression needs. A lactating employee shall be provided a flexible schedule for breastfeeding or pumping to provide breast milk for their child. Employees must work with their supervisor to ensure coverage during this time. Employees are encouraged to block their calendars as needed.

5. If the non-working pumping break exceeds normal time allowed for lunch and breaks, the employee can come in a little earlier or leave a little later to make up the time.

6. All employees are expected to provide an atmosphere of support for their colleagues who are pumping milk for their young children.

7. The company may provide information on breastfeeding to all pregnant and lactating employees. The company may also positively promote breastfeeding in communications with staff.

8. Employee orientation will include information about the company's parental leave and pumping break policies. Changes to the breastfeeding policy will be communicated to current staff as updated.

A company policy shows that all employees are entitled to the same level of support. It clearly defines responsibilities of the employee and supervisors, promotes understanding among colleagues, and tells everyone what to expect.

Potential upcoming changes to federal policy

At the end of 2022, President Joe Biden signed the federal PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act into law. While details are still pending, it’s expected that the law will:

  • Extend the time a parent would qualify for protected pumping breaks from one year to two years.
  • Extend protected pumping time and space to salaried employees.
  • Make exceptions to the requirements for airline employees working on flights where a private room wouldn’t be available and completely relieving an employee of their duties wouldn’t be possible.
  • Give employers 10 days to come into compliance with the law, if they are notified they are not.

How does Maven Clinic help you support nursing mothers in the workplace?

Maven is the world’s largest virtual clinic for women’s and family health. We offer resources and programs for new parents’ physical and emotional needs. With that level of support, more than 90% of Maven Clinic members return to their jobs after maternity leave. 

With Maven Clinic, members have access to:

  • Lactation support: Members get unlimited, on-demand access to lactation consultants in Maven’s network at any hour of the day or night.
  • Maven Milk: Your employees can safely and quickly ship milk when they’re away from home. That allows employees to continue working while providing for their growing families.
  • Parenting support: Mental health therapists, sleep coaches, parenting experts, and career coaches are available to help with new-parent concerns. 

Find out more about what Maven can do for your company's family health benefits program—schedule a demo today

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