The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division recently issued a fact sheet explaining employers’ obligations under the break time requirement for nursing mothers found in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which amends Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

According to Fact Sheet #73, “Break Time for Nursing Mothers under the FLSA,” employers must provide reasonable amounts of unpaid break time and a private place for breast-feeding employees to express milk. “The frequency of breaks needed to express milk as well as the duration of each break will likely vary,” said the agency. The agency clarified that employers also must provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public,” where the employee may express breast milk. If a space is temporarily converted into a lactation area, it must be available whenever the nursing mother needs it.

The FLSA nursing break provisions cover only those employees who are not exempt from the FLSA’s overtime pay requirements, according to the fact sheet.  However, state laws may obligate employers to provide breaks to nursing mothers who are exempt from overtime pay under federal law.

Federal law does not require employers to compensate nursing mothers for the breaks they take to express milk, the agency said, but if an employer nevertheless compensates employees for breaks, an employee who uses the break time to express milk must be compensated in the same way that other employees are compensated for break time.  In addition, the FLSA’s general requirement that the employee must be completely relieved from duty or else the time must be compensated as work time applies. 

An employer with fewer than 50 employees at all of its work sites is not subject to the break-time requirement if compliance would cause an undue hardship.  The agency explained that the existence of an undue hardship is measured by comparing the difficulty or expense of compliance with the size, financial resources, nature, and structure of the employer’s business.  The FLSA requirements do not preempt state laws that provide employees with greater protections, such as paid break time or coverage for more than one year.

Now that the Department of Labor has issued its regulations regarding the amendment and has clarified some misunderstandings from the Act, employers should aim to avoid potential claims.  To the extent employers have not already done so, they should consider what private locations they can make available to nursing mothers and communicate that information to their employees.  If compensating employees for breaks already, make sure to compensate the employee who uses the break time to express milk.  If you are an employer with less than 50 employees and compliance with the law would cause an undue hardship, make sure you can measure the hardship by the factors expressed by the agency.