Over the last few days, the mainstream press and blogosphere have been abuzz over the Harvard Medical School student and new mother who asked for extra time during her licensing exam to express her breast milk. Ultimately, a Massachusetts court denied Sophie Currier’s request of the National Board of Medical Examiners for the time.
The case raises some interesting questions including, what happens if/when she becomes a doctor and makes a request to breast feed in the workplace? If she decides to practice in Connecticut, she will have a few more options.
Over five years ago, Connecticut passed a law protecting mothers who decide to breast-feed in the workplace. Specifically, Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 31-40w, provides that:
an employee may express breast milk or breastfeed at her work place during a meal or break period.
What are an employer’s obligations in Connecticut? The employer has an obligation (not discretion) to make "reasonable efforts" to provide a room, or other location near the work area where the employee can express her milk in private. The statute also indicates that this location is to be someplace other than a toilet stall.
What are reasonable efforts? Similar to the analysis under the ADA, reasonable efforts mean any effort that would not impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer. For large companies, a lactation room might be reasonable; for smaller employers, use of smaller supply room or conference room, with a chair, might have to suffice.
Duke University’s Human Resources has this suggestion on how to set up an appropriate lactation room:
An unused large closet or private area off of a women’s restroom would work. The area should be at least 7 feet by 7 feet, be ventilated, have a door that locks, electrical power and be completely private. It should also be accessible to employees with disabilities.
Notably too, an employer cannot discriminate against, discipline or take any adverse employment action against an employee because she has decided to breast feed or express her milk during a rest or meal period.
New mothers are sometimes reluctant to make a request, typically because they are unaware that they have such rights. After all, being a new parent is exhausting enough.
But for employers who want both productive employees and happy ones, taking the lead on this issue might prevent lawsuits like the one filed in Massachusetts. Have a plan on how to deal with new mothers and make them feel comfortable when they return by providing them information on the options they might have. Better yet, designate a room ahead of time that can be used by new mothers and educate your workforce about it.
La Leche League also has additional information on the subject for employers and employees alike.
SEPTEMBER 26th UPDATE: An appeals judge has reversed the lower court decision, thereby allowing Sophie Currier break time. She will now be taking her boards on October 4th.