When you're about to have a baby, that HR person you haven’t spoken to since your first day on the job becomes your new best friend. And if you're breastfeeding, there are questions to ask the human resources department about breastfeeding to help you navigate pumping at work, that you would never ever have thought to ask when you were first onboarding.
It's important to know what the law states before speaking with HR. Under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), “Break Time for Nursing Mothers” requires employers to provide a reasonable break time and a lactation accommodation (other than a bathroom) for non-exempt (i.e. hourly) employees. Additionally, there are a number of state and municipal laws that address breastfeeding at work. And many companies do truly care about their new working moms. “Supporting breastfeeding helps to reduce healthcare costs, reduces sick time and employee leave, and it can help support retention efforts,” said Melissa Gonzales, executive vice president of the Americas for Medela LLC and spokesperson for their New Moms’ Healthy Returns program. “By equipping her at work, we’re strengthening Moms’ circles of support to help give their babies a healthy start.”
So, if you want to continue on in your career while still giving your baby that precious breast milk, you don't have to feel totally discouraged. Yes, it will be difficult, but you got this, and your company will hopefully be 100 percent supportive and accommodating. Here are some questions to ask your HR department before you head back to the office.
1. “Where will I pump?”
“The number one question moms should ask is ‘Where will I pump?’ says Kate Torgersen, Founder and CEO of Milk Stork, a breast milk shipping service. Employers with 50 or more employers are required to provide a private space that can be secured and is not a bathroom, she says. Because it’s not all that enticing to be pumping when someone in the next stall is peeing or, um, pooping.
2. “How does the company refer to these spaces?”
It might seem like semantics, but not every company describes the place where women pump in the same terms. “The spaces available for pumping or expressing breast milk aren’t always called ‘lactation’ rooms; some companies call them mothers’ lounge or wellness rooms,” says Gonzales. These typically offer more than just a chair and a table to pump. They're more comfortable, might have a sink so you can wash out your pump, and private.
3. "Does our company have a corporate lactation policy? Has this policy been shared with managers and supervisors?"
A corporate lactation policy should specify the locations of lactation rooms on a company's campus, how the spaces are accessed, where breast milk can be safely refrigerated, and where employees can clean pump parts, as well as whether or not lactation breaks are paid or unpaid. “It is very important that the corporate lactation policy is shared, not just with moms returning from maternity leave, but throughout the company to create a culture that supports breastfeeding moms,” says Torgersen.
4. “Do lactation rooms have hospital grade pumps and lactation supplies, or will I need to bring my own pump?”
You definitely don’t want to pack your pump into your work bag and schlep it back and forth to the office each and every day. And pumps can get pretty pricey, especially if you’re potentially going to need to shell out for two: one for the office, and one for your home. Torgersen recommends finding out if your company already has on-site pumps (some companies offer this option) that you can use to spare your back — and your bank account. Just make sure you're comfortable with the condition of the pump (it should be clean and the motor properly working). You might also want to bring your own accessories like tubing and flanges to make sure the equipment you're using is sterile.
5. “Is there a maternity return flex schedule?”
In addition to providing information about breastfeeding practices and information, you should also be aware of any potential flexible work policies that your company supports. "Ideally, your employer will also provide additional benefits to support your breastfeeding journey and return to work," says Torgersen. That might include having a flexible work schedule upon returning to the workforce, or allowing you to have additional time to bond with your baby before starting up working again.
6. “How long is the break time to pump?
Employers are required to provide women with adequate break time to pump for up to one year after birth, according to the United States Breastfeeding Committee. However, they’re not required to provide paid-break time. As for how long the process will take, pump breaks should take about 30 minutes or so, including the time to pump, as well as clean and store your supplies.
7. “Can there be breaks during long meetings to allow me to pump?”
Some meetings are quick and to the point. Others… not so much. If you know that 9:30 a.m. meeting is going to go on until lunchtime (and your boobs just are not going to make it), Torgersen advises asking a manager early on if a 30-minute break can be included in the agenda. You can also ask HR if there is some official policy in place that addresses being able to leave a meeting to pump. That way, your ideas (and your boobs) won’t be bursting at the seams.
8. “Does the company cover milk shipping costs for business trips?”
Have pump, will travel. If your job requires you to be on planes, trains, and automobiles, you want to make sure that all that liquid gold won’t go down the drain simply because you can’t get it to your baby safely and on time. Many companies cover the cost of milk shipping for business trips, The Ladders reported. Christine Dodson, cofounder and COO of Mamava, (a company that designs lactation suites for nursing moms) advises asking your employer specifics on shipping times and potential costs when it comes to your breast milk.
9. “Where can I pump at an offsite event?”
“Pumping is hard enough in one’s own workplace, and it is even tougher when you’re visiting someone else’s office,” says Torgersen. Find out the logistics if you have to attend any work-related events that are not in your office so that you’ll know what to expect.
10. “Is the lactation room private? Does it have a door that locks?”
The last thing that you want is to have an unsuspecting coworker accidentally waltz in on you mid-pumping sesh. Dodson suggests that you find out about the details of the lactation room. You want to make sure that it’s not a conference room or another space that is multi-purpose, and as such, could run the risk of you being exposed — literally.
11. “Is there a calendar for nursing moms who might also need the space?”
Doesn’t it always seem to work out that female friends tend to get pregnant at the same time? The same sometimes also holds true for female coworkers, so don’t be surprised if you find that you and a few of your office buds all have babies in the same time span. As such, you’re going to need to work out a system for who gets to pump when. This might be something you work out amongst your colleagues, but your company may also have a preexisting system in place to help minimize the traffic. “We actually have several pods in our small office because sometimes mamas have babies at the same time,” says Dodson. “Rush hour is a real thing since most mothers are on very similar feeding schedules.”
12. “Is there a separate refrigerator to store my breast milk?”
This is a great question to ask, because you probably don’t want to put your breast milk next to the IT guy’s leftovers — and he probably would prefer that you don’t either. Also, it’s not unheard of for an office mate to mistakenly drink someone’s breast milk, so having a separate fridge (even a mini one) to store your breast milk separately is important to find out.
13. "What’s the best way to communicate my pumping schedule?"
Especially if you’re working as part of a team, you might find it beneficial to disclose your pumping schedule to your colleagues, or at least block off those times in your calendar in advance so it's clear when you are or aren't available. Again, your company might have a method for handling this, so defer to them first. “That way, your colleagues understand why you need to have multiple pump breaks scheduled throughout the day,” says Dodson.
14. “Are there any other benefits or supports available for me, as a breastfeeding mom?”
Don’t think that just because your company has a lactation room that the working mama benefits end there. “Support makes a big difference when it comes to breastfeeding success,” says Gonzales. “We recommend asking about any other wraparound benefits related to breastfeeding, such as a digital health support tool, or on-demand pediatric or lactation support."
If you're feeling self-conscious about asking questions, for fear that your pumping can pose a problem with your employer, don't be. “Be confident,” says Dodson. “The law is usually on your side when it comes to the lactation accommodations at work. Know your rights.”
For more information, please visit the U.S. Department of Labor, which further explains your rights as a working mother who plans to pump in the workplace.