The Legislature’s override of Gov. Paul LePage’s budget veto Wednesday overshadowed the demise of other good legislation that succumbed to the governor’s veto pen and Republican lawmakers’ unwillingness to defy the chief executive.
One such bill, LD 777, would have strengthened workplace protections for nursing mothers. It would have extended Maine Human Rights Act anti-discrimination standards to lactating mothers. Those standards already apply to pregnancy and “medical conditions which result from pregnancy.” The bill sought to clarify that those protections carry over to women who return to work after giving birth.
In his veto letter, LePage argued that Maine’s existing law provides adequate protection for nursing mothers and that employers who fail to abide by current law face legal or social consequences.
“If there are problems with businesses not following our current law, I firmly believe those matters are best left to the courts or the court of public opinion,” he wrote.
We believe nursing mothers are the best judges of how their workplace needs can be met, and they should not have to go to court or to an adversarial Department of Labor hearing to seek reasonable accommodations.
LD 777, which won support from such diverse groups as the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and the Maine Right to Life Committee, offered a better alternative. It would have allowed nursing mothers who believed their workplace rights were abridged to file complaints with the Maine Human Rights Commission.
That’s a more appropriate forum than the courts or the Maine Department of Labor, which are the only options available now to nursing mothers whose employers fail to provide proper accommodations for their needs to express milk in private. The Maine Human Rights Commission tries to engage employers and employees in a fact-finding process designed to reach agreements that keep disputes out of the court system. That more collaborative approach offers a way to educate — rather than punish — employers who fall short of meeting nursing mothers’ needs.
The bill would have added no extra costs or mandates for responsible Maine businesses that recognize the value of working with employees to address their parenting needs. It simply would have offered a less contentious recourse for nursing mothers whose employers don’t.
A 2011 U.S. Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding listed potential economic benefits for businesses that accommodate nursing mothers. Among them are fewer health insurance claims, less employee time off to care for sick children and higher productivity. The report also notes that “Mutual of Omaha found that health care costs for newborns are three times lower for babies whose mothers participate in the company’s employee maternity and lactation programs.”
Most important, breastfeeding should be treated as a right, not a workplace issue that requires negotiation or litigation. Giving the Maine Human Rights Commission authority over complaints would have affirmed that fact and sent a message that Maine recognizes breastfeeding’s broad public health benefits to children, parents and society as a whole.
Nevertheless, LePage vetoed LD 777, and Maine House members failed to achieve the two-thirds majority required for an override. In doing so, they missed an opportunity to make a simple, cost-effective statement affirming that women in the workforce should have the same rights when they are breastfeeding as they do when they’re pregnant.