Breastfeeding in public has come a long way in recent decades, but not without debate. Mothers struggle to feed their infant children conveniently and search for hospitable sites while onlookers blush, criticize, or call them out. In fact, mothers have been kicked out, fined and at least verbally berated for breastfeeding in public, a practice that some Americans deem “indecent exposure.”

Yet, science, at least, is on the side of mothers who choose to breastfeed. Numerous studies now tell us that breastfed babies are less likely to suffer from food-borne allergies and even tend to have higher IQ’s than non-breastfed children. Still, the question of whether mothers should breastfeed in public remained open until recently when many states began adopting breastfeeding laws to prevent harassment and protect mother’s rights.

Breastfeeding at Work

Breastfeeding in the workplace has had an even more turbulent journey. It’s easy to imagine tense opposition from supervisors who find it hard to relate to breastfeeding or lack the desire to spend precious company time making accommodations for it. Coworkers too might have their feathers ruffled knowing that an activity totally unrelated to employment must receive special attention and precious, extra break time.

Because mothers are only allowed a certain number of weeks of maternity leave, many are still breastfeeding when they return to their jobs. The typical maternity leave, (12 weeks) means that babies are still nursing at least 4 to 5 times per day. This means that unless working mothers express the milk, either by pumping and saving it or by breastfeeding at work, their children will not receive adequate nutrition.

The question is, is the law on the side of mothers who choose to continue breastfeeding? Is the right to breastfeed at work a protected right under California law? The answer is yes.

FACT: California Labor Code provides that employers must allow employees adequate location and break time for expressing breast milk at work.

Breastfeeding law in California has two “layers”: public and work place. According to California Civil Code, mothers may breastfeed in public anywhere they are “authorized to be present.” In the workplace, California Labor Code requires that employers provide accommodations for mothers wishing to “express” breast milk at work, and these accommodations must be adequate both in terms of time allowed and location, according to the law.

There may be confusion among employers and employees alike about whether mothers may breastfeed at work. However, the law is clear. It’s terminology indicates that it applies to mothers desiring to “express milk.” This would include both pumping and actual breastfeeding since both actions involve expressing milk. Many employers may fail to interpret the law to this extent, only allowing women to pump milk rather than breastfeed at work, so it up to lactating employees to make sure their rights are not being violated.

Breastfeeding Bathroom Blues

One way that employers may fail to comply with the laws concerning breastfeeding at work is by providing inadequate accommodations for nursing employees. Mothers may be unlawfully required to use spaces already equipped with security cameras or relegated to restrooms for breastfeeding. In fact, the law specifically states that breastfeeding accommodations cannot be a “toilet stall.” Employers must provide the use of a private room for employees who breastfeed.

Breastfeeding Breaks

Not only is the use of a room or other location required, but employers must also provide break time for women employees who pump breast milk for their children. Ideally, the break time should be concurrent with the employee’s usual break time, but it need not be paid break time, unless paid break time is already a part of the employee’s work day.

Most women will need at least twenty minutes every 2-3 hours for breastfeeding at work. Employers should also consider, however, that employees need time to prepare and clean breast pump equipment before and after expressing. This may require employers to grant extra, unpaid break time before or after work in order to remain in compliance with California breastfeeding laws.

What If Employers Don’t Comply?

FACT: California breastfeeding law is enforceable under the state labor code.

The significance of this fact may not at first be apparent. While many states have breastfeeding laws aimed at preventing the harassment of lactating women, not all of these laws are reinforced with enforcement provisions. This means that though mothers enjoy the right to object to being asked to stop breastfeeding, they may not be happy with the results. Without enforcement provisions it is entirely up to the offending entity to respond, or not, to a mother’s request to continue breastfeeding.

Fortunately, California Labor Code does include an enforcement provision for its breastfeeding law. Violations are subject to a civil penalty of $100 for each violation and the Labor Commission is also authorized to issue citations for each violation.

FACT: California employment discrimination law prohibits discrimination against lactating employees.

Even beyond the requirement of adequate accommodations, employers are also prohibited from discriminating against or harassing lactating employees. This is due to revisions in 2012 to language in the California Governing Code to include “breastfeeding or medical conditions related to breastfeeding” as part of the definition of “sex.”

This essentially means that if an employer refuses to comply with breastfeeding laws in California, they may be liable for employment discrimination based on sex, a long protected category in employment discrimination law. Employers may not refuse to hire, or provide accommodations for lactating employees, nor may they harass or retaliate against a lactating employee who raises complaints regarding her right to breastfeed at work.

In addition, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing enforces the Pregnancy Regulations which include lactation as an “other related medical condition” of pregnancy. The regulations cover a whole host of rights for pregnant women in the workplace, including leave and reinstatement rights. Since lactating women are included in the definition of employees covered by the regulations, they offer yet another hedge of protection for lactating mothers at work.

Know the Facts, Know Your Rights

Clearly, California breastfeeding laws are well equipped to protect the rights of lactating employees. Employees considering breastfeeding may initially fear the inconvenience of doing so at work or they may feel pressured to stop breastfeeding because of a harassing or unaccommodating environment. However, lactating employees should note California breastfeeding laws are in place and readily available to protect them.