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Working / Nursing Mothers

You’ve birthed your precious bundle of joy.  You’ve taken your full maternity leave.  Now, you’re returning to work.  How can you manage working while continuing to nurse your baby?  Yes, you have a breast pump, but how do you make it work at work?

President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which requires U.S. employers to grant nursing mothers reasonable break time to pump breast milk at work.  Employers must also grant nursing mothers a private space (other than the bathroom) in which to pump breast milk at work.

What is a reasonable break time?  Is it 20 minutes?  Or 30 minutes?  Truth be told, the law doesn’t specify.  We believe that each mother has her own timeline, but 20 minutes is probably workable for most new moms

Is the break time paid?  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act does not speak to this issue specifically, but the federal Fair Labor Standards Act does.  That law indicates that breaks of 20 minutes or less are paid breaks.  Longer breaks can be unpaid if you are completely relieved of work responsibilities during the break.

When do the breaks occur during the workday?  Breaks typically occur twice during a full-time workday: one break in the morning, and one break in the afternoon.  If you need additional breaks to express milk, then that needs to be communicated to your supervisor so that accommodations can be made.

What happens if a meeting is scheduled during a time when you need to pump?  You need to communicate this schedule conflict with your supervisor so that accommodations can be made.

Where is the private space (other than the bathroom) that is reserved for lactating mothers at work?  You need to ask your supervisor.

As you may discern from the text above, thorough communication with your supervisor is essential.  It may be uncomfortable for you at first . . . speaking about something so private with your boss.  However, it is the best way to ensure that you are accessing your federally-guaranteed workplace rights.  After all, your supervisor can’t accommodate a request you have never made.

In addition to feeling discomfort at the personal disclosure in the workplace, you may feel stress associated with all your work-time demands (which were probably considerable before maternity leave and have multiplied since you now need to fit in time for expressing breast milk), guilt (for taking leave or taking breaks and shifting work to your co-workers while you are absent), and a host of other feelings not directly tied to the workplace (and are thus beyond the scope of this article).  If your employer has employee affinity groups, you can speak with your human resources representative to see if there is a mothers’ or nursing mothers’ affinity group.  Also, if your employer offers an employee assistance program, you can access that resource for coping tools.

The bottom line is that expressing breast milk at work is a legally-protected right.  Given thorough communication with your supervisor and access to support systems in place in and out of your workplace, pumping at work can become routine and stress-free.

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