Maine House Democrats Banner

Bill to protect nursing mothers in workplace wins House approval

Graham’s proposal encourages breastfeeding and its long-term health benefits

June 6, 2013

AUGUSTA – A bill that protects the rights of nursing mothers in the workplace won House approval by a vote of 90-52 on Thursday.

“Maine has a rich history of leading the nation on important civil rights protections, but nursing mothers have fallen through the cracks,” said Rep. Anne Graham, D-North Yarmouth, the bill’s sponsor. “Working mothers deserve full equality in the workplace.”

The bill, LD 777, makes it unlawful employment discrimination under the Maine Human Rights Act for an employer to fail to provide accommodations for a nursing employee.

Maine law now requires employers to grant nursing workers unpaid break time and a clean location, other than a bathroom, to express milk in private. The Judiciary Committee heard from women whose testimony showed that current state law is insufficient,” said Rep. Charles Priest, D-Brunswick, House chair of the committee.

"We had a situation in one case where a woman was forced to express milk in a Porta Potty," Priest said during the floor debate. "That simply is not acceptable."

The current penalties are toothless and do nothing to help women who need to express milk at work. A nursing employee's only recourse now is to bring a complaint to the state Department of Labor, if she is still employed, or, if she has lost her job, to ask the local district attorney to bring a suit. In either case, the most severe sanction against the employer is a $500 fine that goes to the state, not the mother.

Nothing in current law requires an employer to rehire a worker who was fired for nursing, Priest said.

Graham spoke of her own experience as a working mother who was able to breastfeed her children but encountered hurdles in her workplace.

"I'm a pediatric nurse practitioner, and I'm a mom – a working mom – and I found it difficult to breastfeed my kids while working,” she said on the floor. "Breastfeeding is the best, most healthy nutrition you can give your child for the first two years of life."

Protection under the Maine Human Rights Act provides a fact-finding process that encourages the employer and worker to resolve matters without going to court. LD 777 also provides a private cause of action for violations of state law to the employee.

The important health benefits of breastfeeding for both mothers and their children are widely recognized.

“Seventy percent of mothers are in the workforce and a growing number of mothers are the sole breadwinners for their families,” said Rep. Ann Dorney, D-Norridgewock, a family practitioner. “The children of working mothers should be able to have the long-term health benefits that the nutritional and infection-fighting properties of breast milk provide.”

Graham’s bill has the support of organizations including the Maine Osteopathic Association, the Maine Human Rights Commission, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

“This measure will strengthen Maine’s public policy in support of working mothers who wish to provide their babies with the physical and developmental benefits of human milk,” Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby told the Judiciary Committee.

Representatives of the March of Dimes testified that the benefits of breast milk include prevention of obesity, many acute and chronic illnesses, sudden infant death syndrome, asthma and allergies in children.

“Breastfeeding is the best method for feeding virtually all newborns. Breast milk fulfills an infant’s total nutrient requirements and provides antibodies that protect infants from disease,” Kneka Smith and Erin O’Connor-Jones of the March of Dimes Maine chapter, said in testimony.

Contact:

Ann Kim 287-1488, cell: 233-1838