Breastfeeding is an essential aspect of childrearing for mothers who choose to forgo other forms of nutrition for their baby. Yet, doing so at work can create disputes. Knowing your rights can ensure your right to breastfeed or express milk at work is protected.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act

Female workers should know they are protected under federal law when it comes to breastfeeding and other aspects of pregnancy. In fact, many pregnant and expectant mothers are holding their employers accountable. In the years between 2006 and 2015, the number of pregnancy discrimination and family responsibility cases tripled.

Most pregnancy related cases are filed using the protections stated in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA). This law required employers to treat pregnancy the same way they would treat a disability under the ADA. That means discrimination based on a pregnancy or family matter related to the pregnancy are prohibited.

Essentially an employer must treat a pregnant employee the same as other workers in their “ability or inability to work”. This means employers who treat pregnancy or expectant mothers differently from other works simply because they are pregnant could be in violation of existing laws such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Additionally, the Affordable Care Act of 2010 also affords breastfeeding mothers protection. It says employers must allow sufficient break time for pregnant mothers and and space for mothers to pump breastmilk at work. The break time must be reasonable and the space should be an accommodation other than a bathroom in order for employers to achieve full compliance.

Pregnancy Protection Under State Laws

The recent surge in EEOC charges and and wins at the federal level have led states to also provide increased protection for pregnant mothers and and workers addressing family responsibilities at work. New York, Illinois and California all have explicit rights including the right to breastfeed and pump milk.

For instance, California’s Resulution No. 55 supports the accommodation for breastfeeding at work and expressing milk and advises the Governor to ensure these protects are safeguarded. In addition the California Labor Code requires employers to accommodate breastfeeding mothers by provided break time and a private space other than a toilet stall for lactation support.

Municipalities and local laws have expanded protections too. This means even at the city level most pregnant workers have the right to breastfeed and pump milk at work.

Why Breastfeeding Protection Matters

The expansion and recognition of breastfeeding rights is a result of the awareness among many legislators of the increased pressure of family responsibilities in today’s employment landscape.

Family responsibility is a top issue as women rise in the ranks in employment and the american population ages. More and more Americans are juggling the responsibility of caring for small children starting families or even caring for elderly relatives.

Employers do not always recognize the importance of fairly dealing with workers who have these responsibilities. A recent study by the University of Minnesota revealed that 60 percent of mothers returning to work post pregnancy do not have access to proper time or space to breastfeed on the job despite federal, state and local legal dictates.

Fortunately the law steps in to provide mothers with legal recourse for violations of breastfeeding rights. The PDA in particular provides that employers must provided reasonable accommodations for breastfeeding when requested.

FLSA Specifics for Breastfeeding and Pregnancy Protection

In 2014 the EEOC released enforcement guidance concerning pregnancy discrimination. Here, the agency emphasized that the Affordable care Act provide breastfeeding rights. This means mothers may request time for breastfeeding and a suitable location for it. An employer is obligated to comply with the request or face litigation under the Act.

If an employer is refusing to allow a working mother to nurse or express milk for breastfeeding, the employee may also turn to the Fair Labor Standards Act for protection. The FLSA provides that breastfeeding break time and adequate space must be provided at least for up to one year after a worker gie birth to a child.

Advances in Pregnancy Leave Under the PDA and FMLA

Beyond getting time and space for breastfeeding as an equal right under the law, mothers also have access to leave in association with a pregnancy and child caregiving. For instance a mother may need time of leave to care for a sick newborn or to return to her doctor’s office for follow up checks or for matters concerning breastfeeding. It’s important for working mothers to know that this too is protected under federal and state law.

The basic premise for leave is that leave for a mother cannot be any different in it application than that of workers receiving similar types of leave. This means that a pregnant worker or new mother who uses vacation time to care for her baby cannot be forced to first use up her sick days if other workers are not forced to do the same. Additional protection is available for mothers returning to work after leaves of absence. Employers must allow workers to return to their same job and position after the leave for full compliance with the law.

What To Do When Breastfeeding Rights Are Challenged

The best action to take when employers refuse to allow breastfeeding or expressing milk at work is to contact your attorney as soon as possible. A qualified employment rights attorney has the ability to help pregnant and new mothers navigate through the grievance process as well as through the process of filing a charge with the EEOC under federal or state laws. The attorney can also helps works see the  big picture view of litigation throughout the process.

Being a mother at work is not easy, but with the solid assistance of an expert attorney, it doesn’t have to mean forfeiting your rights.