FM Frequency: Handling A Delicate Subject

By Charles Carpenter
Published in the August 2012 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

There was no shortage of controversy after the infamous Time magazine cover showing a mother breastfeeding her almost four year old son. Similar complaints appeared about photos of servicewomen breastfeeding while in uniform (but none about servicemen holding Katy Perry while in uniform). This installment of the FM Frequency is not here to weigh in on the brouhaha; instead, it will take a practical view of the subject and outline a facility manager’s (fm) obligations.

Some fms may have missed Section 4207 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This amendment, effective in 2010, requires employers to provide reasonable break time and a private, non-restroom place for nursing mothers to express breast milk during the workday for one year after the child’s birth.

The Department of Labor (DOL) has provided Fact Sheet #73: Break Time for Nursing Mothers under the FLSA where fms can read that a restroom, even if private, is not a permissible nursing location under the Act. A non-dedicated space must be available when needed in order to meet this requirement. A space temporarily created or converted into a space or made available when needed by the nursing mother is sufficient provided that the space is shielded from view and free from any intrusion from co-workers and the public.

The question that an fm will probably ask after “What do I call this room?” is “What are the minimum requirements?” Fms prefer not to leave requirements open for interpretation, which more than likely contributed to the requests for information in the December 21, 2010 publication of that page-turner known as the Federal Register. While the DOL would not provide specifics, there are some guidelines for what an fm can do in terms of minimal furnishings.

The hopefully obvious musts for the space include a chair and a table (or “flat surface” in DOL legalese). Electricity should be a no brainer but is only an “ideal.” Sinks and refrigerators are not required but may reduce the amount of break time needed by mothers. Valentina Bruk-Lee, Ph.D. at Florida International University concurs, adding that the physical location of the room should be away from work-related fumes, loud noises, or other significant distractions.

Given a blueprint, fms should have an easier time appropriating space that meets the minimum. Any office or conference room that meets privacy requirements might work. A file room could, in theory, do the trick. Removing the commode technically makes a space into a non-restroom and, therefore, permissible.

Fms should know that this requirement applies to companies with 50+ employees; not a facility with 50+ employees. Hypothetically, a company with 30 facilities each occupied by two employees is required to observe this statutory provision for each location. A McDonald’s restaurant might be lucky in that it can offer a manager’s office. A newsstand in a subway or an outdoor parking lot will have a difficult time providing suitable space. Airlines would be challenged when accommodating long haul flight attendants.

Bruk-Lee says that, at a minimum, the space designated as a lactation room should be lockable, comfortable, and be used for the sole purpose of breastfeeding/pumping. She believes there are a number of misconceptions regarding the time required and needed for mothers to pump breast milk at work. If a mother does not pump regularly while away from her child, she will impact her milk supply.

Another common misconception involves the frequency of pumping. Women need to express milk approximately every three hours, and each pumping session usually lasts 15 to 20 minutes. The space dedicated for this purpose will need to be available two to three times a day for each person who needs the space.

It is important to note that fms should consider the number of nursing mothers employed (and their work schedules) to determine the location and number of spaces to designate or create. The dedicated space may need to be scheduled like a conference room, so multiple users can maintain a regular schedule.

If the designated location is a shared space, nursing mothers must have priority and be allowed extra time to express, since they may be late in accessing the shared space through no fault of their own and/or cannot predict how many minutes are needed from one time to the next. Disruptions to their schedule may cause unnecessary discomfort as well as intervallic milk production.

Bruk-Lee advises that a shared lactation room able to accommodate more than one mom is acceptable, as long as the space can be configured to allow for some privacy, if desired. For example, lactation rooms may include multiple pumping stations with chairs facing away from each other and the doorway, movable space dividers or curtains, or furniture partitions.

Fms should focus on the privacy and security of these spaces. While these spaces should be lockable from the inside, special consideration should be given to accessing the room in an emergency. A deadbolt with a key restricted to as few people as possible could suffice. The low cost alternative might be a $3 barrel bolt hasp that could be dislodged by the force of one or two people. A lactation room could even have a proximity reader to prevent accidental intrusions.

Just as rooms do not need to be dedicated for nursing mothers, the rooms set aside for this requirement do not need to be exclusive for them. “Meditation Rooms” could be used for employees needing a place to pray or regroup from a migraine attack; however, nursing mothers will get first, exclusive priority.

While companies may be apprehensive about carving out space, fms should be supportive of doing more than providing a closet (provided that it met Americans With Disabilities Act standards) to meet the requirement. Bruk-Lee notes that studies have shown that companies with policies and practices that support breastfeeding/pumping mothers benefit from increased employee satisfaction, lower healthcare costs, reduced absenteeism due to infant illness, and reduced turnover.

Clearly, the benefits outweigh the fm related costs. Not only does the company benefit, fms might spend less issuing access cards and credentials to a neglected segment of employees.

Perhaps in the future, architects and developers will plan for the ideal lactation space the same way they include telecom rooms, restrooms, and electrical closets when designing a building. In the meantime, fms can carve out ideal spaces or make reasonable accommodations to existing rooms.

Carpenter would like to thank Dr. Bruk-Lee for her insight and research on this important subject.