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Curb Your Enthusiasm About the New Federal Workplace Pumping Law

The workplace pumping provision of the federal health care bill sounds like great news for women who pump breast milk in the workplace. Who could complain about a federal requirement that all employers give reasonable unpaid breaks to employees who need to pump for their nursing infants? On closer examination of what the law actually does, I think many of you will complain.

On its face, the new law, Section 207 (r) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), requires unpaid break time for employees to pump breast milk for a child under age one. In a country that truly supports breastfeeding mothers and their children, women should be paid for pumps breaks. Children should breastfeed until at least a year so mothers can pump for as long as their children need them to.  The new federal law has a hardship exception for employers of fewer than 50 employees. It is still unclear how many employers will evade the new requirements under an as yet undefined hardship exception.

But the problem with the new federal workplace pumping law is much bigger than all that. The problem is that there may be no way for most women to use it at all.

Go back to the FLSA. To be covered by new Section 207 (r) you have to be an employee to whom the FLSA applies in the first place.

Section 13(a)(1) of the FLSA provides an exemption from both minimum wage and overtime pay for employees employed as bona fide executive, administrative, professional and outside sales employees. Section 13(a)(1) and Section 13(a)(17) also exempt certain computer employees. To qualify for exemption, employees generally must meet certain tests regarding their job duties and be paid on a salary basis at not less than $455 per week.

Basically that means that if you get a salary, you are probably not covered by the FLSA and not entitled to whatever new federal workplace pumping benefits there are. Well then, the exempt workers should at least be happy for the nonexempt – the hourly workers, those women covered by Section 207 (r), right? Well, hang on.

The first thing I researched about the new federal workplace pumping law was whether there was a penalty for employers that don’t comply. Finding the answer is much harder than it would appear. Go back and read the text of the bill. No, you didn’t miss it. There is nothing about enforcement, penalties or remedies.

But you can’t stop there because new subsection (r) is an amendment to Section 207 of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.  (I know this is confusing but ride along with me.) So you need to go to the FLSA and read Section 207.  See if Section 207 has some enforcement, penalties or remedies.  Hmm.  Nope.  So then you read the entire FLSA.  (Actually, you don’t need to unless you want to. I reread it for the first time since law school.)

There are lawyers who do exclusively FLSA work but, fair warning, I am not one of them. You can find the penalties though. Section 216, which is long and convoluted. From what I can tell, penalties are available if the employer’s violation resulted in lost wages or unpaid overtime pay. But Section 207 (r) specifies that pump breaks are to be unpaid.  So it appears that an employee would have to get fired to have lost wages. And women don’t want to get fired over needing to use a breast pump at work.

In the real world, if an employee can’t get pump breaks or a pump space, she needs an order, either from a court or a government agency, requiring the employer obey the law. What she needs is an injunction. But for injunctive relief under the FLSA, you need to look at Section 217. Did you read it? No mention of it applying to Section 207.

So what will happen to an employer who refuses to comply with the new federal workplace pumping mandate? So far, I haven’t been able to find a labor lawyer who can tell me. And that makes me wonder whether the answer is “nothing at all.”

The Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, has the ability to issue “Administrator Interpretations” which clarify what the FLSA means. However it is unknown when any will be issued concerning employer obligations under Section 207 (r). Unless there are complaints filed, Wage and Hour will have no reason to issue any “Interpretations.”

Now, some employers are going to provide break time and pump space to all employees who need them. Some employers already do. As I wrote in Pumping 9-5 in Mothering back in 2008, 26% of all U.S. employers provided some sort of lactation support in 2007. But the study from which that figure comes does not specify how much lactation support. It is unlikely that a quarter of all U.S. employers give both unpaid break time and a place to pump that meets the requirements of the new FLSA Section 207 (r):  “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public.”

Let’s also remember that only thirteen states, plus Puerto Pico and the District of Columbia,  have laws that require some employers to give unpaid breaks and a place to pump to their employees. Of those thirteen, only five states (California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, and Vermont), as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, have laws that penalize employers for failing to abide by workplace pumping laws.

Let’s take a look at what large corporate law firms appear to be telling their large corporate clients. Some corporate law firms appear to be advising large companies to comply at least minimally. A few point out that this amendment may contradict existing FLSA regulations which require that employers pay employees for breaks up to 20 minutes.

So what should you do if you are an hourly worker whose employer is not complying with FLSA Section 207 (r)? Contact the U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division at 1-866-487-9243. Look around the Wage and Hour website. Have a confidential conversation at the toll free number. And then, if you would like to share your story with others, e-mail me. I am currently collecting information from workers whose employers refuse to comply with FLSA Section 207 (r). Until we know whether this new federal law can actually help women pump in the workplace, I will be writing the stories of women whose employers fail to comply with it.

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