October 27, 2020

Lactation Spaces: Employee Accommodation And Covid Compliance

Natasha Weiss

Having a baby is no easy task. Especially when you add the difficulties that come with returning to work postpartum. One of the biggest concerns for new mothers and parents is figuring out how to navigate pumping when returning to the workplace.

The needs of new mothers are often overlooked by employers. Many lactating mothers find themselves having to pump in uncomfortable spaces and configurations, with more vulnerability around coworkers, and an increased need for privacy. Too often breastfeeding workers have to pump in uncomfortable spots like the storage or conference rooms, their cars, or bathroom stalls. On the forefront of their minds is how and where they will safely store their milk and keep pumping equipment clean and sanitized throughout the process.

Luckily, more and more companies are making efforts to support newly postpartum parents when they return to work with comfortable and clean lactation spaces. Most important is creating comfortable, private, sanitary environments where lactating employees can pump efficiently. This allows them to feel supported and be able to focus on work tasks.

Breastfeeding employees typically pump two to four times a day, spending twenty to thirty minutes per session. That’s a lot of time devoted to keeping their babies fed, and new mothers need a fully functional and comfortable lactation space in order to do so. Given the time spent pumping, it’s crucial that employees have the ability to be productive and comfortable while pumping, with ample surfaces for placing pumping equipment, outlets for plugging in breastpumps and laptops, and clean and private storage for breastmilk containers.

It’s not just a matter of convenience, a designated lactation space is critical to the health and well-being of both parent and child. So much so, that there are legal regulations that require employers to accommodate these needs.

Lactation Laws

The passing of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 created greater requirements for employers, and paved the way for establishing accommodations for breastfeeding and pumping employees. This amended previous standards set by the Fair Labor Standards act to require “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk”, as well as “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk”.

This does not require a permanent lactation area, but one that can be made available anytime a nursing mother needs to express milk. Portable solutions like the lactation space from Nessel stored in a private room, make it easy for employers to comply with labor laws.

Certain employees like teachers and those that work for some small businesses are exempt from the act, however the U.S. Department of Labor still strongly encourages such employers to provide these accommodations.

Still, employers are required to comply with more comprehensive state and city laws around lactation, which may override any possible exemptions.

This is especially true for cities like New York and San Francisco, which hold progressive standards for employee accommodation and workplace wellbeing.

The city of San Francisco built upon existing labor laws to require more specific guidelines for employers. Building off federal regulations, the designated lactation space must also have seating, be clean, have a surface for pumping equipment, have electrical outlets, easy access to a sink and fridge, be close to the employee’s work area, and be a designated lactation space. In addition, they must also have a lactation accommodation policy in place, and a clear process for accommodation requests. If employers fail to comply with these standards, they face strict penalty fines.

New York City has similar requirements, but does not necessitate access to a fridge. Other differences include specifications on the need to mitigate when either two employees need to use the lactation space at the same time, or “if the request for a lactation room poses an undue hardship on the employer, the employer shall engage in a cooperative dialogue”.

Keep it Clean

Pumping and storing breastmilk can be precarious, yet is necessary for the health and well being of baby and breastfeeding worker.

With so many pieces and parts that are being used on a regular basis, it’s easy for pumping equipment to harbor harmful bacteria and pathogens. This is especially important for babies who were born prematurely or have compromised immune systems.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, outlines specific sanitation guidelines for keeping pumping equipment clean. These guidelines highlight the importance of washing hands prior to pumping, and keeping the pumping area clean. It’s also necessary to have a convenient way to clean and sanitize pumping equipment, and store it in a place that will limit contamination.

In addition to keeping pumping equipment clean, breastfeeding mothers also need to have a convenient way to refrigerate their milk, so that it doesn’t spoil. The CDC states that breastmilk can be left at room temperature (77°F or colder) for up to four hours, in the fridge for up to four days, and the freezer for six to twelve months at most. If need be, parents can choose to use an insulated cooler bag for up to 24 hours, but a fridge is ideal for storing milk.

Besides preventing it from spoiling, mothers work hard to pump, and don’t want to see their precious liquid gold go to waste from being left out too long.

COVID-19 Compliance

Included in the many people returning to work after social distancing, are newly postpartum mothers who now need to balance pumping in the workplace with worries about keeping their families safe and free from infection.

With so many unanswered questions around COVID, a common concern for parents is the risk of infection that may come with breastfeeding. The World Health Organization, WHO, concluded that for those that choose to breastfeed, the benefits greatly outweigh the risk of infection. The organization is encouraging providers to educate mothers who have suspected or confirmed COVID on the importance of continuing to breastfeed.

Amongst breastmilk’s numerous other benefits like providing proper nutrition, regulating baby’s weight and reducing their risk of disease, studies show that breastmilk may also provide immunity benefits for babies that may prevent COVID and other infectious illnesses.

New hypotheses and research suggests that breastmilk may hold key information about antibodies from mothers who have recovered from COVID. All the more reason for workplaces to accommodate them in their journey of returning to work while breastfeeding. Having a safe, sanitized space for new mothers to peacefully pump at, can help ease their worries, and promote productivity - especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nessel Space’s ergonomically designed lactation spaces include a self contained sink, refrigerator, and outlets, for a fully functional, yet portable, space for breastfeeding employees to pump comfortably at work.

One of the lactation space’s key features, a portable sink, offers breastfeeding employees the ability to sanitize pumping equipment in private. While the portable fridge allows for breastmilk storage, and minimizes contact with other employees and anything they might store in a common fridge.

The attached sink also allows for easy handwashing, which should always be done before pumping, but is also critical in preventing the spread of viruses, especially the one that causes COVID.

A Word for Employers

It’s in everyone’s best interests to provide clean and convenient lactation spaces for employees. Besides easing breastfeeding employee’s concerns around privacy and sanitation, it also gives them the freedom to more comfortably multitask and get work done, while doing their other job - pumping.

A happy and healthy employee is a productive employee!