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Federal law requires employers to provide certain accommodations for breastfeeding women, but some careers, including teachers, aren't covered.
A Georgia lawmaker is seeking to require employers to provide nursing mothers time and space to express breast milk, provisions not afforded to all workers under current state law.
Right now, employers in Georgia can decide whether to support breastfeeding employees by providing break time and a space, other than a restroom, to pump breast milk throughout the day. The proposed measure mandates those provisions and adds anti-discrimination protections for breastfeeding mothers that allow them to seek legal recourse if their employer fails to comply with the changes.
Any time an employee uses to pump may “run concurrently with any other time for a break already provided to the employee,” but must be paid time, under the rules of the legislation.
Most nursing mothers are already guaranteed paid time and a sanitary place to pump breast milk under federal law, but those protections only extend to jobs covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which excludes a number of professions, such as teachers and nurses. A report by the Center for Worklife Law estimates that 9 million women of childbearing age aren't covered by the federal law.
“The gaps in the current state law mean that this kind of demand is currently allowed,” state Sen. Zahra Karinshak, a Democrat, said while introducing the bill last month. “These gaps must be closed.”
Karinshak, an attorney who breastfed both of her now-teenage children, learned about the gap in state law after a constituent emailed a radio show about her difficulties pumping at work. The woman, a public school teacher, expressed breast milk during her planning period, using a hands-free pump that allowed her to work at the same time.
A female supervisor had permitted the arrangement, but when the teacher was reassigned to a male boss, he told her to stop, she said, “because there was no way for him to prove that I am working, because he cannot be in there to ‘make sure’ that I’m working while I pump.”
The teacher told The Bert Show that she spoke to human resources and was given two options: stop pumping at work or stay late after school to make up for the time she spent pumping during the day. She opted to stop pumping during the day, she wrote, which caused her milk supply to dwindle.
The radio show reached out to an employment lawyer, whose wife, also an attorney, works with Karinshak. She drafted the legislation—named Charlotte’s Law, after the teacher’s daughter—and introduced it in the Senate at the end of January.
Supporting working mothers is important for several reasons, Karinshak said in a radio interview. Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first six months of an infant’s life and as the main source of nutrition for a year, so providing space and time for mothers to express milk is in the best interest of children’s health.
“Breast milk is the best food they can be having,” she said. “So why aren’t we doing what we can do best for our children?”
Teachers, Karinshak added, are an especially important part of the workforce who should not be exempted by virtue of their profession.
“We talk about our teachers and how much we love our teachers and how much we want to support our teachers,” she said. “Well, put your money where your mouth is.”
The bill, sponsored by three Democrats and three Republicans, is awaiting a hearing before the Senate Committee on Insurance and Labor. Karinshak said she was optimistic that Gov. Brian Kemp would sign the bill if it passed, noting that the Republican had been instrumental in opening a lactation room near the state capitol for breastfeeding mothers.
“We are making this opportunity available for all women. We’re not going to have gaps,” she said. “Teachers are critical to our workforce, to our future, to our children. They really should have the opportunity to pump, and to do that without fear of retaliation.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.