Minnesota Legislature Expands Nursing-Mother Breaks and WESA Pregnancy Accommodations

During its last special session, the Minnesota Legislature passed a series of omnibus bills addressing a variety of issues, including jobs, taxes, and education.  Included in the 96-page omnibus jobs bill (S.F. No. 9) were amendments to Minnesota’s nursing mothers statute (Minn. Stat. § 181.939) and the WESA pregnancy accommodations statute (Minn. Stat. § 181.9414).

While the changes were small, the amendments clarify and expand the protections afforded to pregnant and nursing mothers in Minnesota.  Governor Walz signed the bill into law last week and the expanded workplace protections for pregnant and nursing mothers go into effect on January 1, 2022.

Employers Must Provide “Reasonable Break Times” for the 12 Months following Birth

Minnesota’s nursing mothers statute (Minn. Stat. § 181.939) was first enacted in 1998.  As originally enacted, the law provided “reasonable unpaid break time” for nursing mothers to “express breast milk for her infant child.”  However, unlike the federal statute, which was passed in 2010 and limited the break times for the first 12 months following birth, the Minnesota statute included no temporal limitation.

In amending the statute, the Minnesota Legislature made clear that employers must provide “reasonable break times [note the plural] each day to express breast milk for her infant​ child . . . .”  The amendment also removes the provision stating that the breaks may be “unpaid” and notes that “an employer shall not reduce an employee’s compensation for time used for the purpose of expressing milk.”  Finally, the amendment expressly limits its application to “the twelve months following the birth of the child.”

Here is the amendment in full:

(a) An employer must provide reasonable unpaid break time times each day to an employee who needs to express breast milk for her infant child during the twelve months following the birth of the child. The break time times must, if possible, run concurrently with any break time times already provided to the employee. An employer is not required to provide break time times under this section if to do so would unduly disrupt the operations of the employer. An employer shall not reduce an employee’s compensation for time used for the purpose of expressing milk.

2021 Minn. Laws ch. 10, Art. 3, § 3 (S.F. No. 9) (available here).

Although narrowed to the first 12 months following the child’s birth, the amended statute makes clear that employees must be provided with access to multiple breaks (i.e., “reasonable break times”) to express milk and, while the breaks may run concurrently with unpaid break times, they must not cause the employee to lose any compensation.

WESA Pregnancy Accommodations Expanded to All Employees Working for Employers with 15 or More Employees

In 2014, Minnesota passed the Women’s Economic Security Act (or WESA).  WESA created Minn. Stat. § 181.9414, which required employers to provide accommodations to pregnant workers, including (1) more frequent restroom, food, and water breaks; (2) seating; and (3) limits on lifting over 20 pounds.  Our blog post regarding the WESA amendments is available here.  The problem, however, was that it was codified as part of the Minnesota Parental Leave Act (MPLA), which has a narrow definition of “employer” and “employee.”  Thus, the accommodation requirement was arguably limited to employers with 20 or more employees and “employees” who had worked for at least half-time for one year.

The Minnesota Legislature broadened the application of the pregnancy accommodation statute by moving the statutory text from Minn. Stat. § 181.9414 to a new subdivision under the Minnesota’s nursing mothers statute (Minn. Stat. § 181.939).  Given that there is no definition of “employee” in the nursing mothers statute, courts will likely apply the broadest possible definition of that term.

While the 2021 Legislature did not alter the text of the 2014 WESA accommodation statute, it did add a definition of “employer,” which limits its application to employers with 15 or more employees.  The definition, though, is limited to the WESA accommodation portion of the statute (Minn. Stat. § 181.939, subd. 2) and does not apply to the nursing mothers portion of the amended statute (Minn. Stat. § 181.939, subd. 1).  As a result, while the pregnancy accommodation requirement is limited to employers with 15 or more employees, the requirement to provide breaks to nursing mothers for the first 12 months following birth of a child applies to all employers (regardless of size).

Bottom Line

As you can see, while not groundbreaking, the 2021 amendments to the nursing mothers statute (Minn. Stat. § 181.939), which now include the WESA pregnancy accommodations, broaden the protections for pregnant and nursing mothers.  Remember, the amendments go into effect on January 1, 2022, so employers would be well-served to have this on their list of “to dos” for 2022.

CORRECTION: A previous version did not note the revised definition of “employer” (i.e., 15 or more employees) for the WESA pregnancy accommodations.