America’s Baby Formula Shortage Reveals Systemic Barriers for New Parents in the Workplace

Amidst a nationwide shortage of baby formula, a lack of support in the workplace should not be an additional barrier to parents feeding their babies, and breastfeeding and parenting workers should know that there are laws in place that can help.

As we face a shortage of baby formula across the U.S., our nation must once again reckon with the disheartening lack of systemic supports–stemming from a chronic undervaluing of care–for new parents, particularly women. Throughout the pandemic, resulting economic crisis, and now this alarming shortage, parents have and continue to face immense challenges, and must make difficult choices on many issues, including regarding breastfeeding, in part based on support in the workplace or the lack thereof. This is especially true for low wage workers, who too often lack access to important workplace protections they need for breastfeeding, such as break time and a private space to pump milk at work, paid family & medical leave, and pregnancy accommodations

It is important to recognize that breastfeeding is not an option for every family. Many parents and caregivers are depending on formula to feed their babies right now, and deserve urgent relief during this stressful time. We commend the work of our partners across the country in local breastfeeding coalitions and other organizations that are directly supporting new parents as they address their babies’ needs. Workers in urgent need of formula can find some helpful tips here. 

A lack of support in the workplace should not be an additional barrier to parents feeding their babies, and breastfeeding parents should know that there are laws in place that can help. Additionally, parents who need to care for a child who is adapting to a different formula may need to exercise their rights to paid leave. Read on for what you should know about your rights to lactation accommodations and paid leave under federal, state, and local laws.  

1. Federal laws may provide protection against discrimination and accommodations for pregnant and lactating workers.   

The Federal Break Time for Nursing Mothers Law gives U.S. workers who are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act the right to (1) reasonable break time to express milk as needed during the workday, and (2) a clean, private, non-bathroom space to express milk until your baby is one years old. 

For workers at businesses with 15 or more employees, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) makes it illegal for a covered employer to treat an employee unfairly because of pregnancy or lactation. Additionally, employers may be required to provide reasonable accommodations (or minor job changes) to employees, such as time and space to pump breastmilk at work or a modified schedule, if they do so for other similarly situated employees. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides similar protections to workers navigating certain pregnancy related conditions that may be considered disabilities, such as mastitis. 

Additionally, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off of work per year. This could include bonding with a new child and establishing breastfeeding, caring for a sick child, or addressing one’s own serious health needs, including pregnancy-related health needs. Although this leave is unpaid, employees may use accrued paid leave, including vacation, personal, or sick days, while taking FMLA leave. 

2. Many states and localities have strengthened protections for postpartum and lactating workers. 

Many states have strengthened protections for nursing mothers in the workplace by expanding break time and space laws. Thirty states and five localities have passed their own version of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which provides protections for pregnant and postpartum workers in need of a modest accommodation to stay healthy and employed. Laws vary by state, but accommodations often include a private space and/or time to express breast milk at work. A current and up to date list of the state PWFAs can be found here. To learn more about how to discuss your breastfeeding needs with your employer visit here

3. State paid family & medical leave and paid sick time laws can help parents in need of time off from work for breastfeeding or caring for a sick child.  

Eleven states and D.C. have passed paid family and medical leave laws, so that workers can continue to financially support their families while taking time off work to take care of their health. Under these laws, family leave can be used to bond with a child within the first year of birth, a time mothers could possibly use to establish breastfeeding. Additionally, paid medical leave could be used to care for a sick child as they continue to adapt to a new formula. A current and up to date list of the state Paid Family and Medical Leave Laws can be found here

Additionally, dozens of jurisdictions—including states, cities, and counties—have paid sick time laws on the books. Under these laws, workers can earn hours of paid sick time while they work to use for a later time when they or a loved one, including a child, has fallen ill. A comprehensive breakdown of each paid sick time law can be found here. 

In addition to the federal and state laws mentioned above, you should look to see if your employer has specific policies regarding paid personal, sick days, or vacation, as they may also apply. 

For more information about your workplace rights under state, local, and federal laws, consult our Workplace Rights Hub, or contact our free confidential legal helpline at 1-833-NEED-ABB.

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