My Employees Are Complaining about a Co-Worker’s Pumping Breaks

May 2, 2024

Challenge: “One of my employees has been back from parental leave for a month. She is breastfeeding her baby and needs to take breaks during the day to pump breast milk. She takes three breaks per day for about 30 minutes each time. When she is on break, her coworkers have to cover her work (she is a pharmacy cashier), which means that sometimes they have to postpone their own breaks. They are starting to complain. I know that she is entitled to breaks under the PUMP Act, but the breaks are disruptive and I am afraid that they are undermining the cooperative team culture that I’ve worked hard to build. What can I do to keep things on an even keel?”

Solution: Congratulations on your team building and on your familiarity with the PUMP Act.

Here’s a quick overview of the PUMP Act for people who aren’t as familiar with it: Almost all employers are required to provide “reasonable break time” to breastfeeding employees “each time” they need to  express breast milk during the workday, and a private space to use to do so that is not a bathroom.

The law does not say how much time is reasonable for pumping breaks. The U.S. Department of Labor, which enforces the law, says, “The frequency, duration, and timing of breaks needed will vary depending on factors related to the nursing employee and the child. Factors such as the location of the space and the effort reasonably necessary to express breast milk, e.g., the pump setup, can also affect the duration of time an employee will need to express milk.”

It sounds like you are letting your employee have the breaks to which she is entitled, so let’s skip right to managing her coworkers’ resentment.

You wisely intuit that you hold the keys to the best solution for this situation. Your attitude sets the tone for the team. If you are supportive of your pumping employee, you help your other employees be more supportive of her.

Why should you support your pumping employee? Aside from legal compliance, here are several reasons, about which you may need to educate your employees:

  • Breastfeeding is important for the health of your employee and her new baby, so supporting her is the right thing to do. If your team needs a selfish reason, it may reduce the number of sick days she takes and that will benefit everyone.
  • Breastfeeding is important to the employee or she wouldn’t be doing it. It can be hard work to breastfeed, and particularly hard to pump to make it possible to combine working and motherhood. It takes energy, effort, and time. Daily activities have to be planned around it. It takes a lot of commitment. You probably know that teams work best when their members feel supported in things that are important to them. This is no different. Support for pumping breaks will make it possible for you to retain your employee, which will almost always be easier for everyone.
  • Pumping breaks are not leisure. Your employees may need more information about what it entails to understand this.
  • Breastfeeding is temporary and the number and length of breaks will likely change over time. Pumping schedules are supposed to mimic a baby’s feeding schedule and young infants typically need to eat more frequently than older babies. Over time, your employee may need just one or two breaks during the day. The disruption will be reduced.

So here are some ideas for handling the resentment. First, consider the reasons the resentment arises. Are your employees viewing breaks or other perks as a zero-sum game where if your pumping employee can take breaks then they can’t? If you can assure everyone that they will all get breaks and you make sure that their breaks are as respected as the pumping breaks, you may find the resentment dropping off.

Or, could resentment be arising because the employees are afraid that you will not take their needs as seriously as you take the needs of your pumping employee? Everyone wants to be seen and taken care of, and everyone wants to be important to the boss. So it may take some assurances from you on this point as well. In your one-on-one meetings with your employees, you can discuss the issue of breaks and say something like, “It is important for all of us to support Patrice while she needs pumping breaks. Our team supports each other, and we will be here for you and everyone else on the team for whatever arises. I’d appreciate your help with covering her breaks, and if you find that you are having trouble taking your breaks, let me know and we’ll take care of that.”

Let’s not overlook another possible cause of your employees’ complaints: they may feel uncomfortable with the topic of breastfeeding. Maybe you do, too. Discomfort can be lessened through learning more about breastfeeding, which may help your employees to think of it less as something sexual and more as a normal, beneficial, loving practice.

Second, be a role model. You’ve told your employees that you support Patrice, and now let them see it. Let everyone see you smile at her, talk with her about her work and her baby, ask her if she has had her break, and cover for her yourself when you can. In other words, be welcoming and kind like you are to everyone.

What was once a “disruption” can now be an opportunity for further team strengthening.

Pro tipemployers can also show their support for breastfeeding employees by providing them a nice space to pump – and the extra features might actually be required by law. The PUMP Act is requires only that the space be “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public.” Some state and local laws go further, for example, requiring that the space be clean, free from hazardous materials, and have a place to sit, a table or shelf to place a pump and other equipment, and access to a power source to plug in an electric pump (California). Consider providing the following to support pumping employees:

  • A lactation space near the employee’s workstation (note that they are not required to use the provided space)
  • A clean room that is regularly cleaned
  • A door that can be locked from the inside
  • A table or counter on which to place a pump
  • A comfortable chair
  • Electrical outlets
  • Access to running water to wash hands and clean pump parts, with soap and towels
  • A window to provide natural light and a shade
  • Good ventilation and temperature control
  • Dimmable lighting
  • Bluetooth speaker
  • Phone charging station
  • Wi-Fi or ethernet jacks
  • Filtered water dispenser and snacks
  • A mirror to use to adjust clothing before returning to work
  • Tissues
  • Access to a refrigerator

© Cynthia Thomas Calvert.

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