House passes bill to expand workplace protections for nursing mothers

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The House passed legislation on Friday that would expand workplace protections for nursing mothers to ensure they have accommodations to pump breast milk while at work.

Lawmakers passed the bill on a bipartisan basis, 276-149, with 59 Republicans joining all Democrats in support.

The measure builds upon a provision in the 2010 health care law that requires employers to allow “reasonable break time” and to provide private space other than a bathroom for nursing employees to pump breast milk.

The 2010 law requiring nursing accommodations does not apply to workers who are exempt from overtime pay requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act. However, some employers have been subject to providing accommodations for such employees if it was required by state laws. 

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chief author of the legislation, said it would offer protections for as many as nine million more people who weren’t covered by the 2010 law, including farm workers, transit workers, nurses and teachers.

“When I first came to Congress, working mothers would come to me, often in tears, and advocate for a place to safely pump breast milk. Often they were fired, ridiculed, forbidden or forced to pump milk in bathrooms,” Maloney said.

“Without these protections, nursing mothers face serious health consequences, including the risk of painful illness and the inability to continue to breast-feed,” Maloney continued. “These basic protections would ensure that working moms who want to breast-feed can continue to do so and prevent nursing mothers from being singled out, ridiculed or fired.” 

Under the legislation, employees must first notify an employer they are not in compliance with the accommodation requirements and allow at least 10 days for the workplace to make changes before they can take legal action.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.), the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, argued the accommodations required by the measure would be “overly burdensome” for some businesses.

Foxx gave an example of the airline industry potentially having to redesign planes if they must provide private spaces other than restrooms for nursing mothers to pump breast milk. 

“While I believe empowering women in the workplace is important, we must not saddle businesses with rigid policies that will open them up to legal action. We instead must support flexible policies that allow women to thrive in the workplace,” Foxx said. “During this difficult time, the last thing small businesses need are more sweeping mandates.”

While most Republicans voted against the bill, four of its official cosponsors are Republicans: Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.), Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Don Young (Alaska) and Don Bacon (Neb.).

Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have introduced companion legislation across the Capitol, but their version has yet to reach the Senate floor. 

House passage of the bill comes as Democrats are preparing their sweeping legislative package to invest in climate change and child care support programs.

Among those programs under discussion is ensuring workers have access to paid family and medical leave. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world without a national paid parental leave program.

Democrats’ original legislation would have provided workers with 12 weeks of paid leave with their usual wages replaced on a sliding scale. But President Biden confirmed during a CNN town hall on Thursday night that the proposal will likely shrink to four weeks of paid leave as Democrats pare back the size of the overall package to accommodate centrist holdouts.

Tags Brian Fitzpatrick Carolyn Maloney Don Young Jaime Herrera Beutler Jeff Merkley Joe Biden Lisa Murkowski Virginia Foxx

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