Texas Breastfeeding Moms Fight to Pump at Work
A new pair of bills aims to close a federal loophole that’s hurting moms in Texas who want to pump breast milk while at work.
In the great state of Texas, a woman can teach children or she can mother them, but she can’t do both at the same time. So say former and current teachers and the legislators with whom they’ve aligned to push a number of bills that would require public employers to provide basic accommodations for mothers who breastfeed and need time and space to pump breast milk while at work.
Current federal law says employers with more than 50 employees must provide accommodations—like breaks and a dedicated room—for new mothers to pump their milk while away from their babies. But this only applies to hourly workers; salaried workers are exempt. And so in Texas, due to this loophole, new mothers who happen to be teachers’ aides and lunch ladies are ensured time and space to express their milk while full-time teachers are not.
Anna Smith is now a stay-at-home mother to five. In 2012, she was working as a kindergarten teacher in Marlin, Texas. But says she had to resign after the principal at her school refused to give her a break in the afternoons to pump.
“I was upset that I had to leave my students and the community,” Smith testified before a Texas House committee last month. “I faced a difficult choice that women should not have to make: give up breastfeeding or give up my career.”
Sarah Kuttesch, a high school math teacher and mother of four from San Antonio, Texas, met similar difficulties, but chose to stay in the profession, despite the challenges associated with her attempts to breastfeed after returning to work. Kuttesch recounted before the committee pumping breast milk in bathroom stalls and in her classroom where students would knock constantly and a custodian once walked in. “I felt insecure,” she said.
Even when, with her third child, she was given an office that locked, she was told it couldn’t be reserved for her use, but she was welcome to use it “if it was free.”
“Teaching is one of the most family-friendly professions; our whole focus is children and their future,” Kuttesch said. “It’s extremely telling that in the teaching profession we do not have guidelines set forth that allow teachers to care for their own children to the best of their ability.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests breastfeeding for at least one year, citing benefits like protection against a variety of diseases and positive impact on maternal health. And due in no small part to a recent push by state and federal health organizations to promote breastfeeding, national rates have continued to rise. In 2011, 79 percent of newborns were breastfed; by 6 months, 49 percent were breastfeeding; and 27 percent were still breastfeeding at 12 months.
But returning to work is a significant barrier to breastfeeding, according to the U.S. Surgeon General, who noted in a 2011 call to action that inhospitable conditions for breastfeeding moms led to premature weaning. Forty percent of mothers who return to work opt out of breastfeeding altogether, according to Texas Breastfeeding Coalition.
At least 14 states—California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Tennessee—have laws on the books governing breastfeeding accommodations, according to Jake Marcus, an attorney who maintains a website on breastfeeding laws. But the statutes vary and some only regulate employers so far as to say that they “may” allow breastfeeding mothers to pump at work.
Only around one-quarter of U.S. employers reported having some sort of program or designated area for lactating mothers in 2009.
Though the recently passed House Bill 786—introduced by Democratic state Representative Armando Walle—which mandates accommodations for working mothers in state agencies, local governments and schools, has seemingly universal support, the Senate bill—from Democratic state Senator Sylvia Garcia, which reaches only as far as public school employees—now faces opposition from at least two lawmakers: Republican Senators Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Donna Campbell, both mothers themselves, who say it is government overreach, not breastfeeding, they’re against.
“I’m a female who actually was a working mom and had the same issues and was able to be able to continue to breastfeed for my children while I was working,” Kolkhorst, who is co-authoring a bill that aims to ban Sharia law in Texas courts, told The Texas Tribune. “I know that there are situations that we hear about that don’t go so well, but I’m hoping that local school districts can come up with their own policies regarding this issue.”
"Schools have the flexibility to provide this if and when they feel it's appropriate,” said Campbell—a staunchly conservative physician and mother of four daughters who recently argued that insurance plans should not cover abortions even in instances of rape or incest because a woman’s word couldn’t be proven. “The government doesn't need to be mandating it.”
Neither Campbell nor Kolkhorst returned a request for comment.
Regardless of the two likely “no” votes in the House, both bills have wide support and breastfeeding advocates are banking that closing the federal law’s loophole for salaried public employees will have a ripple effect in the state.
When asked whether these bills go far enough, Krisdee Donmoyer, legislative chair of Texas Breastfeeding Coalition, told The Daily Beast, “All mothers should be able to choose how they feed their babies.”