By: Rebecca Rosefelt + Lisa Stratton |
As of late July 2018, all fifty states have legalized breastfeeding in public, easing the burden for families with young ones just before World Breastfeeding Week. This isn’t a new issue—Minnesota enacted its own right for mothers to breastfeed in public in 1998. Nonetheless, recent events, such as the public pool incident in Mora, Minnesota, have highlighted how unfamiliar many people are with the rights of nursing mothers. While much of the related debate in the US centers on a mother’s choice to feed her child with breastmilk or formula, it is critical for women who choose the former to plan how they will continue to breastfeed after returning to work.
In 2010, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was amended to provide “reasonable break times” for lactating mothers in the workplace, and many states, including Minnesota, have enacted similar legislation. The duration of a “reasonable” break time is one of the most common questions asked by employers and employees alike, and answers vary. The frequency and duration with which a mother needs to express milk varies not only by woman, but with the needs of her infant as well. It’s best for employees to talk to their supervisors about what their needs are or will be so that employers can prepare a suitable space.
Enabling Women to Pump at Work
A designated place for working mothers to pump must be private and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, and employers cannot direct their employees to use a bathroom or toilet stall. A private room with a lock, for example, may be ideal. These spaces do not need to be permanently designated rooms to express milk, so a conference room that can be shielded from view by people outside may suffice. Minnesota, unlike federal law, additionally requires these spaces to be in close proximity to the work area and include access to an electrical outlet. The Minnesota Department of Health recognizes Breastfeeding Friendly Workplaces that adhere to a higher set of standards for lactation support.
The FLSA provision does not apply to everyone, however. Employees who are considered “exempt” under minimum wage requirements, such as salaried professionals or agricultural workers, are not afforded the right to have a pumping break under federal law. Additionally, employers with fewer than fifty employees do not have to adhere to the federal requirements. Minnesota law goes a step further, however, and compels all employers to provide nursing breaks. These breaks do not need to be paid under either law, but employers may choose to count time spent pumping as a paid break.
Holding Employers Accountable for Violations
If an employer fails to follow these laws, the employee can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, or with a state-level counterpart. To prevent nursing mothers from having to decide between breastfeeding their babies or keeping their jobs, Minnesota’s enforcement scheme is designed to result in quick action on complaints.
- The state’s Department of Labor and Industry must contact the employer within two days of receiving a complaint, and complete its investigation within ten days of the complaint. ( Stat. 181.9435).
- If the problem is not resolved, the Minnesota’s Women’s Economic Security Act also permits employees wronged under the state’s breastfeeding statute to pursue a civil action, where they may be awarded damages, attorney’s fees, and other equitable relief. ( Stat. 181.944).
Employers are prohibited from terminating their employees for complaining or taking any other adverse action against them. Our own Lisa Stratton was a key player in adding these and other provisions to the Women’s Economic Security Act. If an individual is not sure whether they’re qualified to file a complaint or civil action, we recommend contacting an attorney.
The US is a global outlier in the field of women’s rights and mother’s rights. Here you can read a proposal that Minneapolis adopt several international standards to establish “the right to be empowered to breastfeed.”