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Breastfeeding at work: How HR can go above and beyond for nursing workers

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Did you know August is National Breastfeeding Month? Breastfeeding may seem like an invasive topic for a water cooler chat, but it’s a workplace issue that HR needs to be prepared to handle.

In recent years, changes have been set into motion to support breastfeeding at work – with accommodations like lactation rooms, and the recent passage of the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections (PUMP) Act. 

With the renewed push for protections and support for breastfeeding at work, now is the perfect time to rethink lactation support for nursing workers. 

Breastfeeding at work 

According to the CDC, although the majority of babies born in 2019 (83%) started out receiving some breast milk, many families do not breastfeed for as long as they intend to.

New parents have a lot to worry about upon their return to work: from childcare needs to post-partum health issues. But one of the most common – and disruptive – is nursing and breastfeeding at work. In fact, in 2019, Unum found that 47% of new mothers said breastfeeding at work was one of their biggest challenges upon their return to work.

And the struggles of breastfeeding at work don’t stop there. A 2018 study by Aeroflow found that: 

  • Nearly half (49%) of expecting mothers in the U.S. were concerned that breastfeeding at work could impact career growth
  • Over half (62%) felt that there was a stigma attached to breastfeeding at work, and
  • Nearly half (47%) considered a job or career change due to having to pump at work.

The recent push for fair accommodations for pregnant workers and nursing mothers reflects a larger cultural shift to reduce stigma around the needs of new mothers – including increased accommodations for nursing mothers. 

At its best, lack of accommodations for breastfeeding at work can add stress for new parents and may decrease engagement and overall satisfaction. At its worst, a new mother who doesn’t feel supported at work may lead to turnover and may cultivate an unsupportive culture. 

Know your legal limits

Only in the past decade has there been a bigger legal push to provide accommodations in the workplace for nursing mothers. Before legal protections were put into place, many nursing workers were forced to give up breastfeeding when they went back to work or had to use non-designated spaces like bathrooms to pump. 

In 2010, an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) required employers to provide a private lactation space for those who breastfeeding workers, called the Break Time for Nursing Mothers Law. The amendment gave most employees the right to break time to express milk for one year after the child’s birth. 

However, due to an unintended legal loophole, the law left many nursing workers unprotected. Although some states have passed their own lactation accommodation laws, the biggest push came from President Biden last year with the passage of the PUMP Act.

Protection under the PUMP Act

“The passage of the PUMP Act is a big win for mothers and families, as it strengthens existing protections of time and space for mothers to pump, as needed and for one year following childbirth, during the workday,” says Leila Zayed, VP of Sales at breastfeeding support platform pumpspotting. “Those protections are now extended to 9 million workers not previously covered by Break Time For Nursing Mothers as part of the FLSA.”

With the passage of the PUMP Act, employers are required to provide a private space to pump that is not a bathroom. “That means the pumping space must be clean, shielded from view and free from intrusion. The space should also be near running water, electricity and a refrigerator,” says Zayed. 

How HR can move the needle

With emerging legislation and a renewed push for lactation support, it’s essential that HR puts measures in place to support breastfeeding employees as they re-enter the workplace.

“There’s a lot to gain for employers with a proactive approach to their workplace lactation support program,” says Zayed. It can help those who are breastfeeding at work feel supported – which can lend itself to better employee engagement, improved well-being and an overall more inclusive culture. 

What the PUMP Act requires is the bare minimum that employers need to provide, but space and time to pump at work is only one part of the puzzle. 

A workplace lactation program that works has four parts, says Zayed:

  1. Space and break time
  2. Practice and policy
  3. A sense of belonging, and
  4. Easy access to clinical experts. 

“Ultimately, a solid lactation support program is about the employee experience,” says Zayed. “The aim is to help support employees’ baby feeding goals while also allowing them to thrive at work – which supports the organization as a whole. Creating a comprehensive program signals to current and potential employees that you share their values and are human-centric.”

Here are some action steps HR can take to create a top-notch lactation program and supportive culture for those breastfeeding at work:  

  • Go beyond the bare minimum requirements to improve belonging and reduce isolation, such as by creating a caregiver Employee Resource Group
  • Offer access to lactation experts and educational resources for managers and employees, and 
  • Tailor the program to your workforce by considering unique needs, such as job location and expectations.

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