This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.
The premise behind a new state law is simple: Texas mothers shouldn’t have to choose between their job and breastfeeding their child. That’s the dilemma that Anna Johnson-Smith, an experienced kindergarten teacher in a school district outside Waco, faced with when she had her baby in 2012.
She knew that breast milk was important to her three-month-old’s health. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies consume only breast milk for the first six months of life and continue to drink breast milk until at least age one. Breast milk provides a number of health benefits for babies, boosting their immunity and reducing the risk of conditions like diabetes and infections. Research shows breastfeeding is good for mothers’ health, too. Not all mothers choose to or are able to breastfeed; but having a supportive work environment is key to helping those who do.
To support her baby’s health and maintain her milk supply, Johnson-Smith, like many Texas women, would have to pump at work. School administrators initially allowed her to take the necessary breaks to pump during the day and provided her room to do so. However, she explains that a few weeks into the school year they eliminated the breaks. Rather than cut her baby off from breast milk, she resigned.
She was one of the mothers who successfully pushed the legislature to pass House Bill 786 during the recent session. Since the state law went into effect on Sept. 1, public employers — including the University of Texas, Austin Community College, Austin ISD, the city and county, and state agencies from the Texas Department of Transportation to the Texas Education Agency — are required to provide breastfeeding employees with a place and reasonable break time to express breast milk during the workday. An unfortunate amendment to the bill allows a single-user bathroom — clearly an unsanitary place for baby bottles and milk — to serve as a room for pumping. The bill also requires workplaces to develop a written policy on expressing breast milk.
For many employers, supporting breastfeeding employees is not a new policy. Some do it because federal law requires accommodations for most hourly employees. Salaried employees are not covered by the federal law. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees can apply for an exemption if complying would cause undue hardship.
Other employers provide accommodations because it’s good for business. It helps attract and retain a talented workforce. When employees like Johnson-Smith are forced to resign for the health of their babies, it disrupts productivity and forces employers to spend their resources hiring and training new staff. When employees stay on the job but give up on breastfeeding, research shows they may miss more days at work to stay home with a sick child.
These days there are plenty of helpful resources for employers on how to make the workplace mother-friendly, including on the website for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Women’s Health.
We commend bill author Rep. Armando Walle, the many other supportive legislators, and our partners in the Texas Breastfeeding Coalition for their hard work to improve maternal and infant health. Over the coming year, the legislature should study compliance with the new law around the state. Legislators should also identify any improvements that should be made during the 2017 legislative session, such as acknowledging that bathrooms aren’t sanitary places for pumping breast milk.
Alice Bufkin is early opportunities policy associate for Texans Care for Children.