“Many employers are likely unaware of the increased obligations placed upon them”
By Bob Confer
Historically, nursing mothers have faced struggles – even outright deterrents – to expressing milk in the workplace.
If they wanted to collect and save breast milk for their babies during their working hours they found that many employers put up obstacles — purposely or unknowingly — such as jumping through hoops to schedule expression, not allowing the time needed for that task, having to do so in a dirty bathroom, and storing the vital substance of life in a cooler.
To overcome this and promote a less stressful – and cleaner – experience for those women, the Senate and Assembly passed the Nursing Mothers in the Workplace Act in 2022’s legislative session which was signed into law by Governor Kathy Hochul in December. The law went into effect a few days ago, on June 7th.
Many employers are likely unaware of the increased obligations placed upon them, so I will outline them here so you can prepare your policies, facilities, and people accordingly.
Provide the time: Employers must provide reasonable unpaid break time for mothers to express milk while also allowing them to use their paid break times. Such unpaid breaks should be at least 20 minutes in length, though the state understands some women are done sooner so it’s at her discretion for anything less than 20. The state requires the provision of these breaks every 3 hours, but that’s not necessarily set in stone as the minimum: Policymakers also noted that the frequency of expression varies between individuals, so breaks should be given as needed. Also, employees must be given the ability to work before or after their shift to make up any time used as unpaid breaks, so long as that time falls within the organization’s normal hours. Breaks have to be granted for up to 3 years following a birth.
Provide the space: The employer must designate a space for expression that is not a restroom or toilet stall. The state understands that not every employer has the means or facilities to set aside a room solely dedicated to lactation so you can do right by having a room or office that is generally used for other purposes (conferences, storage, business) become the necessary space during the break periods. The mother must be given total privacy, curtains if a window is present, and a lock on the door.
Provide the resources: The expression room must have a chair, a table to set the supplies and equipment on, and an outlet to power the pump. Running water most be present nearby (not necessarily in the room) for cleaning the pump, cups, and tubes. If that workplace has a fridge, the mother must be allowed to store her breast milk in it, but there is no expectation placed upon the employer when it comes to safekeeping any milk stored. There is an obligation of the employee to keep milk in closed containers and take it home at the close of the shift each day.
Provide the policy: Employers must write a policy that incorporates the parameters of the state’s law, defines the location of the room(s), and provides a means for an affected employee to submit a request for use. This policy should become part of the employee handbook during its next revision and, in the meantime, should be issued to all employees immediately. Then, the policy must be issued every year and given to women when they return from maternity leave.
For employers who once only met the bare minimum of pre-existing law (that an employee be granted break time) this will be a culture change. For employers who had been doing right for mothers all along, it’s only some minor changes to what was done before (more than likely it’s just the inclusion and recurring issuance of a written policy).
Though some might bemoan the addition of yet another law to New York’s never-ending supply of them, it’s really hard to say that this law and its expectations are bad. Mothers deserve the ability to express breast milk during the workday, as it lessens some of the many stresses put upon moms while ensuring the best nourishment for their young ones.
Note: I’m back. Over the past 12 months, I had written very few columns. It was quite busy at home, in service, and at work – two of my kids were toddlers, it was a transformative period for the local Boy Scout councils, and the economy has been weird. Now, things have calmed down a bit or normalized so I will be writing columns weekly, just I had for 17 years. I appreciate all who’ve been asking for columns — I’ll do my best to educate, entertain, and enrage you in the coming weeks, months, and years.
Bob Confer is a Niagara County resident and president of Confer Plastics. He owns a camp in Allegany County, his “home away from home”. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org