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Break Time for Nursing Mothers Laws

The federal government and many U.S. states and territories have laws requiring that employers provide break time for nursing mothers. Recognizing the importance of breast feeding and the difficulties that mother-child separation during work hours can cause, the federal government, 30 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have all enacted important labor laws to protect a nursing mother's rights in the workplace.

See FindLaw's Wage and Hour Laws section for related articles.

Federal Protections for Nursing Mothers

The primary federal law protecting working and nursing mothers is the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which was updated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (often referred to as Obamacare) and requires break time for nursing mothers. Under the FLSA, employers must provide:

  1. Reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk. This time must be provided for 1 year after the child's birth.
  2. A space for employees to express breast milk. This area must not be a bathroom and must be private (shielded from view and free from intrusion by coworkers and the public).

Under the FLSA, an employer must provide break time as needed by the nursing mother. Break time doesn't have to be compensated, but if the employee already has paid breaks, this paid time can be used to express breast milk.

Who Is Covered by Federal Nursing Mother Laws?

The FLSA covers most employees, but not all. Any employee who is entitled to overtime pay under the FLSA is also entitled to these breaks. Employees who are commonly not covered by the FLSA include sales or service employees who make most of their earnings from commission; some computer professionals; some drivers and mechanics; farm workers; and executive, administrative and professional employees. Thus, under the FLSA, a nursing mother who is a salaried manager may not be legally entitled to break time though the hourly employees she manages likely would.

The FLSA also provides certain exceptions for small businesses. Employers with less than 50 employees aren't required to provide break time for nursing mothers if compliance would impose an "undue hardship."

However, an employee who isn't covered by FLSA may still be entitled to nursing mother breaks under state laws, which may apply to all employees.

State Laws Protecting Nursing Mother Rights in the Workplace

Federal law establishes the minimum break time for nursing mothers requirements. However, states can (and sometimes do) offer greater protections for a nursing mother's rights in the workplace.

30 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico require employers to provide break time to nursing mothers. These state laws may be stronger than the requirements of the FLSA in that they:

  • cover more workers
  • don't provide exceptions for businesses under 50 employees
  • don't limit breaks to the first year after birth

Unlike the FLSA, many state nursing mother laws apply to all employers and employees. For example, California requires that every employer provide a reasonable amount of break time to an employee desiring to express breast milk for the employee's child. A salaried administrator would be entitled to the same breaks as a nursing mother under California law, despite the fact that she may not be covered under the federal law.

Some states also don't provide the same small business exceptions as federal law. For example, the Illinois Nursing Mothers in the Workplace Act covers all employers with more than five employees and doesn't include a provision allowing employers to claim hardship and deny break time to nursing mothers. Many other state laws, however, do allow employers to evade break requirements if breaks would interfere with their normal business.

The FLSA limits required breaks to the first year following an infants birth. Several state laws, such as New York's, make no mention of time limits. This means that women who are nursing beyond the first year of their child's birth may still be covered by state nursing mother laws.

Prohibitions on Discrimination and Retaliation

The FLSA prohibits an employer from retaliating against a worker who asserts her rights under the FLSA. An employee who files a complaint under the FLSA or who participates in an investigation can't be punished for doing so. Several states also prohibit employers from discriminating against nursing mothers.

How a Lawyer Can Help

If you're a nursing mother or an employer and you have questions about a nursing mothers' rights in the workplace, consider contacting an experienced employment law attorney to discuss the laws applicable in your situation.

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