Lauren Zucker, Ph.D.
Sitting in a dark closet crammed with dusty textbooks, NJEA member Sarah Reichenbecher struggled to pump breastmilk for her twins, balancing pump parts in one hand while attempting to eat some bites of the lunch she packed but never finished. This isolating experience drove Reichenbecher into activism in her local association, and later as a member of NJEA’s Women in Education Committee, advocating for workplace support for parents and caregivers. Her story was shared by NJEA on the Statehouse floor to encourage the passing of stronger lactation protections in 2018.
When asked about their recent experiences, several NJEA members shared examples of pumping struggles:
- “I asked the only female administrator [for a pumping space] and was offered a bathroom.”
- “I was told I could use a bathroom, or pump behind a curtain in the nurse’s office, where anyone could walk in and hear the obvious noise of a pumping machine.”
- “Not even a couple of days into pumping, a male student walked in on me! I was mortified and furious!”
- “Students turned the light off on me while I was in the closet because the switch was on the outside.”
- “I was always too swamped during preps and lunch time that I couldn’t make it work. The ‘pumping area’ was a dusty closet that housed the computer server and didn’t feel clean. When I had my second child, I just did an extended leave. I just couldn’t take the stress.”
While New Jersey has comparatively strong protections for lactating employees, the recently enacted PUMP Act (2022), supported and endorsed by NEA, protects employees’ right to pump or express milk at work across the nation. Though some employees had been covered by the federal Break Time for Nursing Mothers Law (2010), that law excluded nearly 9 million workers, including many salaried employees.
The PUMP Act—PUMP stands for Providing Urgent Maternal Protections—expands workplace protections to all industries. Additionally, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a civil rights law effective June 27, 2023, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnancy and childbirth and related medical conditions (including lactation) and protects pregnant and postpartum employees from discrimination or retaliation for requesting accommodations.
Despite recent advances, many educators and administrators are not familiar with the laws protecting employees’ rights to lactation accommodations. To raise awareness, union leaders can share the following NEA resolution passed at the 2021 Representative Assembly: “The National Education Association believes that all workplaces must provide lactating employees with safe, clean, comfortable, appropriate, and private facilities to express breast milk.”
While each family makes their own choices about how to feed their children, union leaders can support and advocate for members who wish to express or pump milk at work.
Lactation rights: The basics
- Employees have a right to pump in a private space, shielded from view and free from intrusion.
- The lactation space cannot be a bathroom.
- Break time should be paid if it occurs during an otherwise paid break time, if the employee is not completely relieved of work during the break period, or if another state or federal law requires it.
- When an employee requests accommodations, the employer must promptly engage in an “interactive process” and have a good-faith conversation with that employee to coordinate accommodations.
Note: The Federal PUMP Act applies to employers, regardless of size. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act excludes private employers with fewer than 15 employees. For both laws, employers may be exempt if granting such accommodations would be an “undue hardship,” though according to breastfeeding law expert Ellen Maughan, those exemptions are “very rare and hard to earn.”
Lactation rights: Advocacy opportunities
While the law supports the rights of members to pump at work, members may need their local association to help them access those rights.
- Union leaders can support members requesting accommodations. Since employees requesting accommodations may be out on leave, union leaders can work with the administration and the lactating employee to secure an adequate lactation space and coordinate a schedule prior to the employee’s return or start date.
- Many educators are asked to pump in the nurse’s office. Medical professionals advise against expressing or pumping milk in the nurse’s office, which exposes the lactating employee and their child’s food to germs. Union leaders can advocate for alternative spaces.
- Lactation spaces should be held to the same standards for cleanliness and air quality as other building areas. Schools should follow applicable health and safety guidelines, and the lactation space should be cleaned as frequently as other spaces (or more so, to accommodate multiple employees utilizing a shared space).
- Advocates can ensure that lactation spaces have appropriate ventilation and temperature and nearby access to running water, and include a chair, outlet and a table for pumping equipment. Ideally, the space has a sink and refrigerator for milk storage.
- If an employee requires coverage for their breaks, union leaders can ensure that the lactating employee is not required to arrange their own coverage on a daily or as-needed basis.
- Many educators fear or report being walked in on by colleagues or students. Advocate for additional measures (i.e., an internal sliding latch, a room divider, a privacy screen), to provide extra protection and/or allow multiple employees to have privacy within a shared space.
- Federal lactation rights extend to one year after the child’s birth/placement, though some states (including New Jersey) place no cap on the child’s age.
- Union leaders can familiarize themselves with applicable state laws, which may provide additional protections beyond federal law. For example, New Jersey’s breastfeeding law stipulates that the lactation space must be in proximity to the employee’s place of work.
Streamlining the process
Union leaders can work with members and administrators to streamline the process of requesting accommodations to relieve the burden on individual employees.
Questions to Consider
- Is there a lactation policy in your school and/or in your contract? If not, how can the administration and union collaborate to ensure that employees’ legal rights are met?
- Is there a standard process for employees who are requesting accommodations? Employees should be advised to request accommodations in writing as early as possible.
- When are employees informed of their rights to lactation accommodations? The administration can announce accommodation details at the start of the school year. The union might consider informing all members annually at a general meeting and informing individual members at key points in their employment, such as when they are hired, when they join the union, and when they request parental leave.
Troubleshooting common challenges
Lack of available space
Schools may need to think creatively to find spaces. There need not be a permanent, dedicated space, as long as one is available to the employee when needed throughout the workday. For example, some administrators or employees offer their private office. Custodians are also often able to suggest underutilized or hidden spaces, or to consolidate spaces to create new options.
Lack of coverage
Employees who work directly with students may need coverage during pumping breaks. Schools can arrange for coverage in the same ways that they arrange for coverage for absent employees. In the event of staff shortages, administrators and local associations may need to think creatively—it is not acceptable for an administrator to tell an educator, “We can’t find coverage, so you can’t pump.”
School employees’ schedules may not be consistent from day-to-day, though to avoid medical complications, lactating employees should express or pump milk at similar times each day. Interruptions such as emergency drills or special schedules may also alter the typical workday. While the employer may prefer that an employee express or pump milk during a lunch or prep period, that may not be appropriate for the employee. With advance notice, an employee’s schedule might be designed or altered to build in consistent break times. A back-up space and/or coverage option for emergencies should be discussed ahead of time.
Fear of retaliation, discrimination, or complaints from employers and/or colleagues
Nontenured staff in particular may fear retaliation, though firing an employee for requesting lactation accommodations is illegal under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. In the event that an employee is fired, under the PUMP Act they can file a lawsuit and request monetary compensation. As more employees request lactation accommodations and conversations occur both within the union and between union leaders and administrators, lactation accommodations can become more normalized.
Many employers and employees are unfamiliar with the amount of time pumping or expressing milk requires. Leaders can set appropriate expectations by educating administrators and members. According to the New Jersey Breastfeeding Coalition, lactating employees may need to pump or express milk every three hours, and an average pumping session can last between 15-20 minutes, not including time needed to travel to and from the lactation space, or to clean and store pump parts and milk.
Pregnant and postpartum workers are free from pregnancy-related discrimination under several federal laws. Even though lactation rights are legally protected, advocates may wish to prevent or respond to employer pushback. “The Business Case for Breastfeeding” report from the Office on Women’s Health (OWH) shares several benefits of breastfeeding directed toward employers. You can read the report at bit.ly/owhbusiness.
Violations of the Law
Though an employer might face challenges when arranging an employee’s lactation accommodations, under most circumstances, they are still bound by the law. If an employer fails to provide break time and space for lactation accommodations, and/or the employee is experiencing discrimination or retaliation, members have several options.
Under some circumstances, the employee has a right to file for damages. They should first work with their local association leaders to resolve the issue. They can also contact the Department of Labor (DOL), which enforces the PUMP Act, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which will enforce the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. Unions can also reach out to their state breastfeeding coalition (bit.ly/44xtWJi) for guidance and resources.
NJEA member Vicki Dunn returned to work this year after childbirth and learned that there was no designated pumping area.
“The administrator quickly found me a locked office to pump in whenever I needed it,” Dunn said. “I was pleasantly surprised at how fast this was fixed. Being able to do this was incredibly important to me, especially with the formula shortage.”
Other members shared positive aspects of their experience, often referencing the support of fellow members:
- “I have a storage closet in my classroom that I pumped in, and the custodial staff put in proper security and electrical support to allow me to be successful.”
- “My school didn’t have a designated lactation space, so when I was on leave my local president worked on my behalf with administrators to locate and prepare an appropriate space and coordinate my breaks and coverage.”
- “My co-workers went out of their way to work elsewhere so that I could have privacy during my pump times. I can’t emphasize enough how much their kindness and support has meant. It was extremely hard to leave my baby, but feeling supported by my colleagues has made me feel like I can do this.”
Anyone with an interest in advocating for members’ lactation rights can email Meredith Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about NJEA’s Lactation Rights Task Force, a group comprising NJEA staff and members of the NJEA Women in Education Committee and the New Jersey Breastfeeding Coalition (NJBC).
Guide: “Taking to Your Boss About Your Pump”
The Business Case for Breastfeeding
NJEA Review, “Pumping at Work”