August 21, 2007 > Watercooler Counsel
By Rich Proulx & Malinda Tuazon
Breastfeeding at Work
Q: My employee has just returned to work after being out on maternity leave. She lives close by the office, and during her breaks, she started having her nanny bring her baby to the office to breastfeed. I informed her that breastfeeding is not an appropriate activity for the workplace. Was I on solid legal footing to do so?
Wanting Decency at Work
A: Nope. There are 39 states, including Alaska, that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location. (You can find the complete list at www.ncsl.org). I am surprised by your concern that breastfeeding is indecent, but if you feel this way then providing a private space for breastfeeding or pumping breast milk might address your concern as well as help support this important practice. For some new mothers, the ease by which they can make sure that their baby is getting breast milk will make a big difference in their decision whether to return to work after having a baby, or stay on the job after they have returned. I think you'll find the costs of promoting a lactation-friendly workplace are much lower than hiring and retraining a new employee.
Q: I'm returning to work after the birth of my baby, and want to keep breastfeeding. I'd like to start a lactation program at work. Do you have any advice about doing so? Is my employer required to allow this?
A: It's a worthy goal. Lissa Ong, Nutritionist at USDA's Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program suggests, "To get started, a lactation program needs to allow women time to pump and a private space where they can feel comfortable doing so. Ideally, this lactation space will have a refrigerator to store the milk, but this isn't a necessity." That is because expressed milk can be stored in a cooler bag with ice packs, or even be kept at room temperature for about eight hours. Before approaching your boss, you might scope out your workplace for potential locations for a lactation space. You might also see if there are other women who might support your effort. While it doesn't take much to start a lactation program, some employers might feel more comfortable with an "expert" creating the program. If your boss prefers to go that route, there are professional lactation program consultants which you can find through organizations such as La Leche League. Now, as to what your employer is required to do - while there are Federal laws that permit you time away from work to care for an infant, these laws do not require an employer create a lactation-friendly workplace. However, there are currently thirteen states that address breastfeeding in the workplace. In California, for example, employers must make a reasonable amount of effort to provide a private space (other than a toilet stall) and a reasonable amount of break time for breastfeeding. It's wonderful that you are working to keep your baby drinking baby breast milk. We wish you good luck!
Send your questions to Watercooler.Counsel@eeoc.gov. The first week of August marks National Breastfeeding Week. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, breastfed babies have higher IQs and breastfeeding helps mothers with weight loss and the avoidance of breast and ovarian cancers. Rich is a former Supervisory Investigator and Malinda is a current Federal Investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission www.eeoc.gov. Identifying information in the questions may be fictional.