Despite widespread support for the health benefits of nursing, many new moms find that the act of breastfeeding is not altogether welcome in some spaces. The internet is filled with stories of women who receive unsolicited advice and shaming from strangers when attempting to nurse outside of their homes. Understandably, no one wants to have to deal with this type of vitriol in public or at work, and the good news is you don’t have to! In this article, we’ve gathered the best information available about your rights when it comes to breastfeeding in public spaces, including pumping in your workplace. With a bit of planning and knowledge, you can confidently navigate breastfeeding in public.
Breastfeeding in Public: The Law Is On Your Side
There is little debate about the health benefits that breastfeeding can have for both babies and their mothers. But you don’t have to look too far to know that, while most people agree that breastfeeding is a good thing, when it comes to feeding your baby or pumping in public, heated debates can and do ensue. News outlets and social media frequently highlight the difficulties that many new mothers face when attempting to breastfeed in public spaces. Understanding the laws that currently exist will be helpful as you move into the world with your baby.
First and foremost: the law is usually on your side when it comes to breastfeeding in public. While there is currently only one piece of U.S. federal legislation regarding breastfeeding, it does stipulate that breastfeeding is allowed anywhere in any federal building or property. This is a good start to creating a cohesive environment in which women know their rights when it comes to feeding their babies no matter where they are.
The right to breastfeed in public, however, is actually legislated state by state rather than federally. In fact, it might surprise you to know that prior to 2018, not all states allowed mothers to breastfeed in public. In 2018, Idaho and Utah passed legislation joining the rest of the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico specifically allowing women to breastfeed in any public or private space. This is great news for new parents, but it did not come without controversy.
In Utah, the Breastfeeding Protection Act came out of Utah’s House Business and Labor Committee in a narrow victory with a 6-5 vote in favor of the bill. Some of the state’s legislators were uncomfortable with a provision that allowed women to breastfeed in public uncovered. It was only when the language that allowed for an uncovered breast to be exposed was taken out of the bill that it passed and became law. The controversy surrounding this legislation highlights that although the law is on your side, the social environment in some places may make breastfeeding in public difficult. Unfortunately, some people view breastfeeding as sexual or perverse, and that stigma can be hard to overcome.
Furthermore, though the entire United States now allows breastfeeding in any public space, each state’s legislation around this could be different. For example, as of October 2018, breastfeeding women in 17 states may be able to delay or skip jury duty (California, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, and Virginia), and six states have implemented public health initiatives to encourage breastfeeding and to create positive environments for breastfeeding mothers (California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, and Vermont).
Because each state’s laws differ, it’s important to understand the legislative landscape where you live. For example, California currently has 13 pieces of legislation that protect a woman’s right to breastfeed not only in public but also in the workplace (we’ll get to that in the next section). In fact, in California, there is even a safety code that requires hospitals to support breastfeeding mothers by providing either a breastfeeding consultant or information about where to get help. In other words, if you live in California, then there is a good chance you have already gotten a lot of support for breastfeeding whether in public or not.
This isn’t the case for every state. For instance, while almost all states have provisions that protect breastfeeding women from indecent exposure laws, North Dakota only provides that protection for women who “discreetly” feed their baby in public. This distinction could mean the difference between complete freedom to breastfeed in public and a violation of state law! For more information, consult the National Conference of State Legislatures, which has compiled all of the laws related to breastfeeding. Check out the protections available where you live.
Nursing and Pumping in the Workplace
Breastfeeding in public places is not the only consideration when you have your baby. For many women, going back to work can pose new challenges. In fact, while four out of five U.S. women begin breastfeeding when their child is born, less than half continue after the first six months. Part of the reason for this is that current legislation does not support continued breastfeeding for working mothers. It’s important that you know your rights so that you can ensure that your work environment supports your role as a mother in the best way possible. And while some protections are in place, for many working mothers, significant barriers still exist.
In 2010, as part of the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. Department of Labor put into effect the “Break Time for Nursing Mothers Act,” to address the need for new mothers to express milk while at work. The law stipulates that employers must provide a space for breastfeeding/pumping that is not a bathroom but that is private and separate from the work environment. Under this law, employers must also provide “reasonable time” to express breast milk throughout the day. This federal law provides desperately needed protections for working mothers, but it has some significant limitations.
First, not all workers are covered under the act—it applies to working mothers in hourly paid positions and not salaried mothers. As the United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) indicates, this law currently leaves out approximately 12 million working mothers in salaried positions. Additionally, employers are only required to allow the space and time for breastfeeding during the first year of your baby’s life, which may not accommodate all mothers’ needs. If you work for a company that has 50 or fewer employees, your employer can opt out by claiming that allowing for breastfeeding may cause an undue hardship on the business. Clearly, this one piece of legislation is not enough to guarantee that all working mothers have the space and time needed to maintain their breastfeeding.
The USBC is promoting a new law called the “Supporting Working Moms Act,” which proposes extending the current federal legislation to cover salaried employees. If you fit into the category of salaried employee, pay attention to what happens with this potential change. If you aren’t sure whether or not this law covers you, you can find out by using this online resource put out by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Don’t panic if you are reading this now and thinking “Oh no! I don’t think my employer is obligated to provide space for me to pump!” Just because there is no federal mandate to provide adequate time and space for pumping does not mean that employers won’t be amenable to doing so. In fact, 15 states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Colombia, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia) already have legislation that addresses breastfeeding in the workplace.
State laws, however, are not all created equal. Many of the laws at the state level address similar areas that the federal law does in regard to providing space, not in a bathroom, for lactation, and many even use the same language of “reasonable” break time. Oregon’s state law (Or.Rev. Stat. 653.077) provides more specific guidance for the amount of time required—breaks must be 30 minutes long for each four-hour shift—but this isn’t the case in most places. For example, Virginia’s state law (Va. Code 2.2-3903) simply provides parameters for protecting women who work for companies with no less than five but no more than 15 employees from termination based on lactation. The unfortunate reality is that there is no standard at this time for employers to follow, and that means that they may be able to legally choose not to make nursing or pumping an option for you while at work.
What to Do if You Face Harassment or Discrimination
Unfortunately, not everyone supports breastfeeding in public—some women have been harassed and even asked to leave establishments if they refuse to cover up. You have a right to feed your baby anywhere, anytime, but bias against this still exists in quite a few places. If this happens to you, don’t panic. You may have resources available to you in your city or state. For example, San Diego has a great resource for moms who have been harassed in public; your town may not have a task force to help you if this happens, but the San Diego Nursing in Public Initiative has great information and ideas for how to go about advocating for yourself if you are put in a difficult situation when breastfeeding.
If you feel you have been discriminated against at work for breastfeeding or any other condition related to pregnancy, even if you are not protected in your state or covered by the Break Time for Mothers Act, you could still have legal recourse. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) views discrimination based on conditions of pregnancy as a violation of civil rights. Because of this, even if you are not covered by any specific breastfeeding legislation, you could still have legal rights to breastfeed at work based on protections against discrimination in the workplace toward mothers. For example, your employer cannot deny you breaks for breastfeeding while allowing breaks for other reasons, such as smoking.
If you feel that you have been discriminated against at work, you can file a complaint with the EEOC, but you must do so within 180 days of the incident. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is another great resource for legal guidance, and each state has its own office. Don’t be afraid to reach out if your employer does not comply with current legislation or violates your civil rights. Remember, it’s your right to breastfeed your child!
It is clear that breastfeeding in public and at work could present challenges—whether you’re asked to cover up or denied a private space to pump. Perhaps the best way to address the potential for difficulty is to gather the courage and clarity to know what you want and need when it comes to feeding your baby. Talk to your employer about the benefits of breastfeeding, and if your company doesn’t already have resources for lactating mothers, talk to your human resources department and ask them to investigate it for you. Above all else, know that you have rights, and in most cases, your right to feed your baby, whether in public or at work, is your choice and no one else’s.