Seyfarth Synopsis: Since 2001, Illinois has required that employers provide unpaid nursing or lactation breaks for working mothers. Effective last week, at least some of those breaks must now be paid.

On August 21, 2018, Governor Rauner signed a bill amending the Illinois Nursing Mothers in the Workplace Act. The amendment took effect immediately, and requires that Illinois employers provide paid breaks to mothers who breastfeed or express milk at work. The Act previously required that Illinois employers provide “reasonable unpaid break time” to nursing/expressing employees. It also said that breaks provided to nursing/expressing employees “must, if possible, run concurrently with any break time already provided to the employee.” As amended, nursing breaks “may” still run concurrently with other breaks. However, as to the “reasonable” number of additional breaks beyond those regularly provided to all employees, an employer “may not reduce an employee’s compensation for the time used for the purpose of expressing milk or nursing a baby.” In short, nursing employees must now be paid for those extra breaks.

To understand how this works, first determine what the law (or your lawful policy) already provides as regards breaks. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act doesn’t require any rest or meal breaks, but mandates that employees be paid for short breaks ranging from between 5 and 20 minutes. It also says employers can provide an unpaid meal break of at least 30 minutes, so long as the employee is not required to perform any work during that time. Separately, Illinois law mandates that employees who work 7.5 continuous hours or more receive an unpaid meal break of at least 20 minutes. Thus, in order to comply with both federal and state law, many Illinois employers provide an unpaid meal break of at least 30 minutes. Under the Illinois Nursing Mothers Law as amended, nursing employees can still be required to use that unpaid meal break for nursing or expressing milk (along with any other breaks the employer chooses to provide employees generally). Also like before, nursing mothers are entitled to a “reasonable” number of additional nursing/expressing breaks. Unlike before, however, those extra breaks must now be paid.

In addition, the amendment specifies that the reasonable – now paid – breaks requirement runs only for “for one year after the child’s birth.” Previously, the Act did not limit the time during which working mothers were entitled to additional nursing breaks. Lastly, the original Act excused employers from providing additional break time for nursing/expressing employees “if to do so would unduly disrupt the employer’s operation.” The amendment changed that affirmative defense language; now, in order to be to be excused from the additional paid breaks requirement, Illinois employers must establish “undue hardship”, a demanding standard borrowed from the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Illinois Human Rights Act. The amendment thus makes it harder for an employer to argue that business demands or other reasons should relieve it from compliance.

Since the amendment is now in effect, Illinois employers must promptly review their current nursing/lactation policy and see if it complies with the recent amendment. If not, revise it as soon as possible. In the meantime, follow the new law. If a working new mother requests additional breaks for nursing, don’t be afraid to discuss with her appropriate details regarding the number and frequency of those breaks. The Act, both before and as amended, envisions a joint, interactive determination of how many additional breaks are needed. And don’t count on having an affirmative defense for not providing paid nursing breaks, especially if you are a large employer; that uphill climb got even steeper last week.