California Companies: Give Moms a Break or Suffer Costs

The column, below, was written by Charles Crumpley, Editor and Publisher of the San Fernando Valley Business Journal and published today in Fox & Hounds.

I’ve asked a dozen or so business operators in recent months if they’ve created lactation rooms yet. Most of them have given me a blank stare, with several saying they were unaware of the new state law, which went into effect Jan. 1.

This is the agency where PAGA complaints are filed by lawyers.

Alas, inaction could be costly. The reason: If an employer does not provide private rooms for nursing mothers, the new [California] statute allows employees to file suit under the Private Attorney General Act. PAGA suits are frightening to business operators because they can elevate what would be a routine fine from the state into a legal fight in court that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe a million or more, to settle….

The new law basically requires employers to create a private break room – it cannot be a bathroom – for new mothers to express breast milk. It must be near employees’ work area and be shielded from view and free of intrusions while the mother is in the room. It must have electrical outlets or at least an extension cord, a place to sit and a surface for a breast pump….

Employers can use an existing room, such as a multipurpose room, so long as it meets the requirements, including a lockable door and no interior windows. But the mother has priority. So, a scheduled meeting in that multipurpose room, for example, might have to wait.

There are other requirements under the law, including an expanded definition of break times for nursing mothers and a need for the employer to create a policy on lactation accommodation that must be given to all employees….

Oh, and it doesn’t matter if you have no new mothers on staff or even if you have only nuns as employees, the law requires you to make the accommodation….

[Business operators don’t object to lactation on the property but] object to the manner in which it has come down – quickly, with little time to comply. The bill was signed by the governor on Oct. 10 – less than three months ago. And those who are aware of the new law intensely dislike the fact that employees can sue under PAGA, a favorite tool of class-action lawyers, who are a favorite constituency of state lawmakers. To at least some employers, it feels like they’re being set up for a shakedown.

Under PAGA, a fine of $100 each day the employer is out of compliance typically gets multiplied by the number of employees. When you do that math and then tote up the usual legal costs of a court fight along with any punitive damages, many mid-sized businesses walk away from a PAGA case hundreds of thousands of dollars lighter. Maybe a million or more.

See the full column at Fox & Hounds.

To discover why costly lawsuits keep increasing in California, see More California Employers Are Getting Hit with PAGA Claims published by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Joe Vranich understands California’s perennially difficult business environment and his writings about the topic have been recognized by The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Investor’s Business Daily, Forbes and countless other media outlets.