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Advice | Work Advice: Should men have access to lactation rooms?

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Advice | Work Advice: Should men have access to lactation rooms?

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Reader: Our company merged with another and relocated. The new building had family bathrooms that were retrofitted to make a nursing and pumping room with a sink, mini refrigerator, two recliners, electrical outlets and a dimmer switch. Three women in our building use it, coordinating their time on a Slack channel that is visible to everyone.

One of the women went to use the pumping room. She found a man in the recliner wearing headphones and charging his phone. He apologized for losing track of time and not leaving before she needed the room. She emailed him, her manager, HR and both other nursing mothers for clarification.

The mothers’ opinion is that this room is set aside for a specific purpose, not as a general relaxing or rejuvenating space. They feel violated that a man is coming to this space just to hang out.

The man provided a doctor’s note stating he has anxiety, ADHD and sensory processing disorder, and that he needs a space where he can regroup when the office becomes overstimulating. He asked to join their Slack channel and said he would give them priority.

HR and management are still working out what is legal in this situation under the new federal breastfeeding and pumping rules.

Meanwhile, rumors about this conflict are spreading like wildfire, with people picking sides in a really ugly way.

The mothers would have been more likely to share the space if he had asked first, or apologized for assuming anyone could use it. But he has doubled down on the argument that nobody said it was exclusively a pumping room. He has said things such as “no boys allowed, that is their clubhouse.”

What can be done to mitigate the damage and support all employees?

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Karla: For decades, breastfeeding employees huddled in public bathroom stalls and unlocked offices, praying no one would walk in on them, answering emails while hooked up to a squonky pump so they could provide the best possible care for their infants under pitiful parental-leave policies.

Today they have the legal right to fulfill this draining-in-every-sense-of-the-word obligation in a private space that isn’t centered on a toilet.

Who wouldn’t want a piece of that day-spa action?

Since 2010, the Fair Labor Standards Act has required employers to provide lactating employees with breaks and “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public” to pump breast milk as needed.

The PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act (“PUMP Act”), which took effect in 2023, expanded those protections to an additional 9 million salaried employees who were previously excluded and clarified when pumping breaks must be paid, among other changes.

Your company’s lactation room goes above and beyond those requirements. Sheila Dukas-Janakos, co-founder and CEO of workplace lactation support company Healthy Horizons, called it a “very thoughtful” setup, with the kinds of amenities her company recommends.

But as you’ve seen, the law doesn’t spell out all details about implementation. Although lactation space must be free from intrusion while in use, the law doesn’t say the room can’t also serve as a nap or wellness room. It’s up to employers to set policies around that.

So let’s explore the pros and cons of making this lactation room accessible for other purposes.

Dukas-Janakos pointed out that under the PUMP Act, “a lactating person has to have access at any time” to the designated space: “Any time a parent can’t use that room, that’s a violation of the law.”

While lactating parents usually try to establish a regular schedule for pumping, Dukas-Janakos noted that unscheduled sessions may also be needed. Expressing breast milk is a physiological need, similar to having to use the bathroom or inject insulin; not being able to resolve those needs on demand can lead to physical pain and medical complications.

Healthy Horizons co-founder and COO Cassi Janakos added that even if lactating parents had priority over other users, the burden would be on them to enforce it. Having a policy that explicitly limits the room to nursing parents’ use could prevent stressful, awkward encounters such as the mother in your account experienced.

Another concern is maintaining sanitary conditions in a shared space. “I wouldn’t expect a new parent to be in a room pumping if someone [had been] in there who was sick or making a mess,” said Dukas-Janakos. And, Cassi Janakos added, “parents feel better if other people don’t have access to their [breast] milk.”

For all those reasons — legal, physiological and personal — limiting the lactation room to one purpose is the simplest option for your employer. Dukas-Janakos said that in her experience, once it’s explained why space to pump is a necessity rather than a perk, most people understand and respect its importance.

Breastfeeding isn’t ‘free.’ Here’s what it cost me.

But let’s not forget the co-worker who has a legitimate, documented health condition. Isn’t he equally entitled to accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act?

Probably. But again, the ADA doesn’t spell out the details. The employee is not entitled to unilaterally decide what his accommodation will look like, or infringe on other employees’ rights while asserting his own.

And sniping about girls’ clubs won’t help his case. (Fun fact: Humans of any gender can lactate, and the text of the PUMP Act is gender-neutral. But that’s a subject for another column.)

HR needs to shut out the noise and have an independent conversation with this employee about what he needs to help him perform his job. Aside from co-opting the lactation room, your employer could provide him with his own office or another room with a locking door, additional breaks, an alternative work schedule or permission to work from home.

Balancing accommodations for multiple employees never has to be a zero-sum, winner-take-all game.

Reader query: Do you have a pumping-at-work horror story? What’s the worst place you’ve had to pump while on the clock? Tell me at karla.miller@washpost.com.

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