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House expands milk pumping accommodations

Minnesota lawmakers debated the impact of requiring all employers to provide time and space for new moms to express breast milk.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota House Thursday passed a workplace accommodations bill that seeks to apply the rules for breast milk pumping breaks to all employers, regardless of size.

The debate keyed on the impact on small employers, but also strayed into territory never before discussed in a legislative session.

"We want to make sure that no matter who you are, no matter where you work, no matter what your job is that your child has access to the best start possible, which means you are able to give them breast milk," Rep. Erin Koegel, the Spring Lake Democrat who is the bill's lead author, told colleagues.

Republicans asserted that employers are familiar with the needs of new moms and can work thing out with their employees without the need for new government mandates.

"The problem is the Democrat Party totally does not think a business owner, a small business owner, would be able to make this decision on their own," Rep. Pam Altendorf, a Red Wing Republican, asserted.

Under current law companies with more than 20 employees must provide space that is "clean, private, and safe" for lactating employees to pump breast milk. They must be allowed time to do that was well, and coordinate that with their scheduled breaks.

"Small businesses want to accommodate moms who are lactating, and they’ve figured it out," Rep. Kristin Robbins, a Maple Grove Republican, remarked.

"This will be a huge burden, on especially small employers. To provide a secure room for lactation, they may have to build a different room. They may have to add on to their facility."

Koegel's bill extends those rules to all employers, and bars them from retaliating against women for asserting their right. As the bill reads, "An employer shall not discharge, discipline, penalize, interfere with, threaten, restrain, coerce, or otherwise retaliate or discriminate against an employee for asserting rights or remedies under this section."

Koegel said she's had great bosses who would bend over backwards to help their employees, but the bill wasn't drafted with those types of employers in mind.

"We're not legislating for the best of us. We're legislating for the worst of us," Koegel explained.

"And, yes, I do trust employers to do the right thing. Not all of them."

Republicans also objected to the fact that Koegel's bill removes an exception that employers can make under current law.

The clause being stricken reads as, "An employer is not required to provide break times under this section if to do so would unduly disrupt the operations of the employer."

Rep. Patti Anderson of Dellwood said creating a new mandate and removing the exception at the same time could be hit hard for some employers.

"Small employers, very small employers would not have a clean private place necessarily for someone to express breast milk regularly," Rep. Anderson remarked.

Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, a North Branch Republican, offered an amendment to add the "unduly disruptive" language into Koegel's bill.

Burnsville Democrat Kaela Berg called Neu's proposal the "leaky boobs amendment" because employers could use the "unduly disruptive" clause to target lactating women for milk leakage.

"Is it 'unduly disruptive' when the front-facing employee representing your business welcomes clients with one or two soaking wet circles on their shirt, and that’s the first impression of the business, one that can’t be taken back?" Rep. Berg asked rhetorically.

"Members, I believe in this context we can agree that leaky boobs are bonkers! And so is this amendment! Vote red!"

Rep. Neu Brindley, who pointed out she has nursed all five of her children, said Koegel's bill sends the wrong message about women's capacity to take care of themselves.

"I, as a very strong, capable woman am also capable of figuring out how to express breast milk during my break!!" Neu Brindley declared.

"And guess what? Any brand-new mom has dealt with leaky boobs! We’ve dealt with it!"


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