The US Department of Health and Human Services recognizes August as national breastfeeding month. As the month comes to a close, a bipartisan bill in the state legislature aims to protect parents’ right to breastfeed at work.
All 50 states have laws that allow breastfeeding anywhere, but Wisconsin is behind several states when it comes to protecting employees that need to pump breast milk.
Now, a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers is floating a bill guaranteeing employees unpaid pumping breaks in a private location — that is somewhere other than a restroom — for the first year of their baby’s life. These conditions are already required by the federal government — under the Fair Labor Standards Act — for larger, interstate, businesses. The Wisconsin bill does have some exceptions for undue hardships — including cases where accommodating an employee’s need to pump breast milk would significantly disrupt a business’ operations.
Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) authored the bill. She says this will bring the state in line with federal regulations and go further to support employees. “This is such a great win win because it enables women who want to or need to go back to work more quickly to do so without having to sacrifice breastfeeding and without having to sacrifice the health of their baby,” she explains. “And, it allows employers then to actually have those women back in the workplace, being able to do their jobs and being able to do them well.”
Under the bill, employers would also have to provide electrical outlets and somewhere to store breastmilk. The breaks will be unpaid but will be considered paid work time for determining eligibility for health insurance. Subeck says that provision comes from constituent who worked as a dental assistant and asked Subeck if there was anything she could do to help. “Her employer was complying with everything that the federal government asked, you know, giving her a break time to be able to pump breastmilk, but the break time was unpaid. She understood that. She was comfortable with that. She wasn’t asking to be paid for that time,” Subeck adds. “However, because she worked just right after the threshold to be eligible for insurance benefits, the little bit of unpaid time she was taking each week, dropped her below the insurance.”
This bill was originally introduced in 2015 and again in 2017; however, it never made it out of committee. Senator Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) is the lead author of the bill in the senate and worked on the previous attempts during her time in the Assembly. She says she’s optimistic about the legislation’s odds this time around. “This is one way to support moms, support families, and provide the qualified folks the opportunity to get back into the workforce and stay in the workforce.” Ballweg goes on, “there’s a lot of legislation that it just takes some time for folks to understand the benefits versus the drawbacks. I just hope this is a education piece that we can find more supports as we as we go along and maybe this is the year that that we get it across the finish line.”
The bill now heads to the labor committees in both the state Assembly and Senate.