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Protections for Breast-Feeding Mothers Face Opposition in Senate

A measure to provide workplace protections for female teachers who need to pump breast milk while at work is picking up opposition in the Senate.

Patients wait to be seen at the People's Community Clinic in Austin, which provides state-subsidized women's health services to low-income women, in July 2014.

When Anna Johnson-Smith started her fifth year as a kindergarten teacher at Marlin Elementary School in 2012, she didn't plan to resign just a few weeks into the school year.

With a 3-month-old baby at home, Johnson-Smith wanted to continue breastfeeding, and returning to the classroom meant she needed to pump breast milk while at work. At first, she said, her supervisors were helpful, providing her with a room to pump during 15-minute breaks and someone to supervise her students.

But two weeks into the school year, her supervisors told her they would be unable to continue providing her with afternoon breaks, she said. She resigned and is now a stay-at-home mother.

“I didn’t think I needed to pick between my career and breastfeeding my babies,” Johnson-Smith said. An aide to the Marlin Independent School District superintendent said Wednesday that the then-principal and -superintendent no longer work at the district, and that there was no one else who could comment on Johnson-Smith's situation. 

Almost three years later, Democratic state Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Houston is pushing a measure she hopes would prevent other teachers from facing the same challenges, by requiring school districts to provide "reasonable" break times and facilities for female educators who need to pump breast milk while at work.

Federal law already requires employers to provide accommodations for hourly workers to pump breast milk, but it exempts salaried workers. Garcia’s Senate Bill 1479, which she calls a “common-sense bill,” would extend those protections to school district employees, like teachers, who are compensated on a salary basis.

The measure has been endorsed by several groups representing Texas teachers, but it’s been met with resistance from at least two Republican senators — state Sens. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Donna Campbell of New Braunfels — who say it expands the role of government.

Kolkhorst and Campbell opposed the measure when it was considered in the Senate Education Committee, casting the only votes against the bill.

“I was shocked to see my women colleagues on the committee be the only no votes,” Garcia said.

But Kolkhorst and Campbell said their opposition to the measure is rooted in their small-government principles.

"Schools have the flexibility to provide this if and when they feel it's appropriate,” Campbell said. “The government doesn't need to be mandating it.”

In explaining her opposition, Kolkhorst echoed that aversion to mandates, saying she didn’t want to write the requirement for accommodations for teachers into law.

“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 said. “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.”

The bill has picked up support from the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, the Association of Texas Professional Educators and the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

Holly Eaton, director of professional development and advocacy for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, told the Senate Education Committee last month that school districts already provide accommodations for teacher aides and other hourly workers. But she added that Garcia’s bill “fills a gap that was left in federal law” for teachers.

Garcia rebuffed her colleagues’ explanations about small government because her bill imposes “no extra burden” on schools that are already required to provide these accommodations for some employees.

“They conveniently find a way to hide behind local control,” Garcia said of Kolkhorst and Campbell.

Working women who breastfeed their children may experience diminished milk supply if they skip pumping sessions or do not pump long enough, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Across the Capitol, the Texas House already signed off on a related measure that’s farther-reaching. House Bill 786, by state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, would require public employers — state agencies, local governments and public schools — to support the practice of expressing breast milk and make “reasonable accommodations” for female employees who are compensated on a salary basis to do so.

That measure was sent to the Senate and has since been referred to the Senate Business and Commerce Committee.

Garcia’s bill could be taken up by the Senate as soon as Thursday.

Johnson-Smith, the former teacher, says she’s hopeful it will pass and clear the way for other educators to continue breastfeeding their children while educating the children of others.

“In 2015, women should be able to breastfeed their baby and have their career,” Johnson-Smith said.

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. The Texas Classroom Teachers Association was a corporate sponsor of the Tribune in 2009 and 2010. Texas AFT was a corporate sponsor of the Tribune in 2011, 2012 and 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Health care Politics State government Lois Kolkhorst Texas Legislature