Protections for breastfeeding employees in Puerto Rico just became even stronger. A recent ruling from Puerto Rico’s highest court in Siaca v. Bahía Beach Resort & Golf Club, LLC, held that failing to provide a safe, private, and hygienic space for employees who are nursing to breastfeed or extract breast milk while in the workplace constitutes a breach of an employer’s obligations under Act No. 427 of December 16, 2000. In addition, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, which issued the Bahía Beach decision on January 25, 2016, ruled that failing to provide a space for breastfeeding or extracting breast milk may also result in a violation of a nursing employee’s constitutionally-protected right to privacy.
Upon her return from maternity leave, plaintiff Jacqueline Siaca, a supervisor with Bahía Beach Resort & Golf Club, LLC’s security department, requested use of a space in her workplace in order to extract breast milk. Act No. 427 entitles nursing employees to a paid breastfeeding break of 1 hour for each full day of work (i.e., 7.5 hours), which may be split into two 30-minute breaks or three 20-minute breaks at the employee’s choosing. This benefit may extend for up to 12 months from the employee’s return from maternity leave. Once the employer and the employee have agreed on a breastfeeding break schedule, it may be changed only by mutual agreement. Additionally, Act No. 427 requires employers to arrange for a safe, private, and hygienic location for employees to breastfeed (in cases where the employer has an on-site child care center) or extract breast milk. This means that the room or space provided by the employer for the purpose of the expression of breast milk must be clean, have good ventilation, be accessible only to the nursing employee while she is using the room for expression purposes, have covered windows to ensure privacy, and be in close proximity to the work area of the employee (i.e., the distance to the location should not appreciably shorten the break duration), among other features.
The employer provided Siaca with various spaces, but because Bahía Beach was under construction no space met the requirements set forth under Act No. 427. During the 12-month period in which Siaca exercised her right to extract breast milk, Bahía Beach unilaterally changed, on various occasions, the location in which she was allowed to take her break. Every location presented various issues ranging from dirty and unhealthy conditions and excessive distance from Siaca’s post to a lack of privacy, as she was subject to intrusions on multiple occasions. By the end of the 12-month period, Siaca claimed that Bahía Beach had demoted her from her supervisory role due to her long trek to and from a break location and that her ability to express milk had been adversely effected due to the stress of the situation.
In her lawsuit, Siaca claimed that Bahía Beach had interfered with her workplace breastfeeding rights by failing to provide an adequate location safe and healthy for the pumping of breast milk. Additionally, Siaca made the novel claim that the locations provided by Bahía Beach for the expression of breast milk were subject to intrusion by coworkers—a violation of her constitutional right to privacy.
At trial, Siaca attempted to show that she suffered from depression as a result of Bahía Beach’s actions. Her expert witness concluded that the high level of stress Siaca was constantly under due to the poor conditions of the breastfeeding locations that Bahía Beach had provided negatively impacted her production of breast milk, eventually making breastfeeding impossible. The trial judge found for Siaca, but this judgment was overturned on appeal.
The court of appeals relied on the text of Act No. 427, which does not define “adequate,” to hold that the mere provision of a location to express milk was adequate and that Act No. 427 should not be construed as requiring employers to build permanent facilities for breastfeeding breaks.
The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico reversed the appellate court’s decision reasoning that “adequate,” when interpreted in light of a similar statute in the public sector, requires that the space an employer makes available for breastfeeding be private, secure, and hygienic. According to the court, Bahía Beach did not provide Siaca with an adequate place to pump breast milk because the provided locations were not private and some were not secure as multiple coworkers had keys to them. In addition, the court noted that the locations were dirty, moldy, and full of insects.
Regarding Siaca’s invasion of privacy claim, the Supreme Court of PuertoRico decided that an employer that interferes with a nursing employee’s breastfeeding rights or takes measures that make breastfeeding more onerous may violate the employee’s right to privacy, which is constitutionally protected. The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico clarified that, in order to be actionable, the invasion of privacy must be such that it strips the employee of any meaningful choice about the rearing of her child. That is, a mere failure by the employer to comply with the requirements of Act No. 427 does not automatically give rise to a claim of invasion of privacy. Rather, the employee must show a nexus between the employer’s failure to provide an adequate location, as required by Act No. 427, and the harm suffered as a consequence of that failure. Specifically, the employee must show that her employer failed to comply with Act No. 427 and this failure took away any meaningful choice that the employee had regarding the upbringing of her child.
Navigating Act No. 427 after Siaca
The Siaca decision has immediate and far-reaching repercussions for employers as noncompliance with Act No. 427 may lead to substantial liability. At stake is a penalty amounting to three times the employee’s salary for each day the employer interfered with the employee’s breastfeeding rights and an award of damages (which, in the Siaca case, totaled $50,000 USD) for violations of the employee’s right to privacy under the Puerto Rico Constitution and for the suffering resulting from the employer’s failure to provide an adequate location to extract breast milk. Siaca serves as a reminder to employers in Puerto Rico that the requirements of Act No. 427 are nonnegotiable and noncompliance is costly.