You Have the Right to Pump Breast Milk At Work

January 29, 2024. Duke Medium. By Nicola Young, 2023-24 Duke School of Medicine Schweitzer Fellow.

To everyone who thinks they have to stop breastfeeding when they return to work — you don’t. According to the federal PUMP Act, enacted in December 2022, lactating employees have a right to pump their breast milk at work.

As a Duke medical student and NC Schweitzer fellow who is studying lactation, working for Breastfeed Durham, and volunteering as a birth and postpartum doula, I spend a lot of time supporting human milk feeding. When the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act became law, those of us in the lactation world celebrated. This legislation extended the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law to nearly nine million more workers, requiring employers to provide reasonable break time and a private, non-bathroom space for breastfeeding employees to pump during the workday.

For several months, I naively assumed everyone — from factory workers, to baristas, to doctors — was aware of the new law. However, I still hear “I want to breastfeed, but I can’t because I have to go back to work soon” from new parents. I hear medical residents say that the only place they can pump during the workday is the bathroom. Shockingly, even healthcare professionals that specialize in providing breastfeeding support are unfamiliar with the PUMP Act.

So, in honor of the recent first anniversary of this bipartisan law, here is a reminder of the key points of the PUMP Act. Currently, for all workers except flight attendants, pilots, and railway workers:

  • It is your right to pump at work.
  • Your employer must provide break time and space to pump your breast milk.
  • If you are not completely relieved from your duties during pumping time, you must be paid.

Why is this important? The World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, followed by continued breastfeeding with appropriate complementary foods for up to two years and beyond. Breastfeeding has many health benefits for all parties involved. The Cost of Not Breastfeeding tool estimates that breastfeeding can prevent nearly 600,000 childhood deaths from infection, 1 million cases of childhood obesity, and 100,000 maternal deaths from cancer or diabetes worldwide. And breastfeeding has been projected to save families thousands of dollars and the global economy $341 billion.

Exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months might sound reasonable on paper. But the truth is that feeding an infant their parent’s human milk either requires close physical proximity between the infant and parent or adequate time for the parent to regularly express and store their milk, as maintaining breast milk supply depends on frequent milk removal. Living in the only developed country in the world with no national paid leave policy, 1 in 4 women in the US in 2020 returned to work 10–14 days after giving birth, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 6% of women in the lowest income bracket had access to paid leave in 2021. Even parents who do have paid leave in North Carolina tend to have less than 12 weeks. So, for parents who must return to work to financially support their families, the right to pump breast milk at work afforded by the PUMP Act is vital to their ability to feed their infants in line with global health recommendations.

How can you help raise awareness about nursing parents’ rights and promote human milk feeding in the workplace?

1. Talk with your family, friends, and colleagues about the PUMP Act.

2. If you are expecting and planning to feed human milk, discuss your plans with your Human Resources office early, preferably in the prenatal period. This allows for productive conversation around expectations and space that will be available to you.

3. Remind your peers that it is their employer’s responsibility to provide accommodations. If you need to file a complaint against your employer, follow these instructions.

4. Congratulate your lactating colleagues for undertaking the labor of love that is pumping at work.

5. North Carolina is one of 37 US states that do not have a paid family leave policy. Sign petitions and write to your local policymakers about passing paid leave policies.

Nicola Young is a Duke medical student and a 2023–24 NC Schweitzer Fellow.