House panel votes to put breastfeeding bill on ice

Watered-down measure recommends setting up a study committee


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House Commerce Committee Chairman John Hunt, R-Rindge, called the decision to send the breastfeeding measure to interim study 'brilliant.'

The NH House Commerce Committee on Tuesday essentially recommended putting off action on a bill aimed at helping breastfeeding mothers in the workplace by voting to set up a committee to study the issue. It even stripped the word “breastfeeding” from the bill's title.

“This will make everybody happy,” said Committee Chair John Hunt about the move. “Brilliant.”

But the action did not make Kate Frederick happy. Frederick, a former state employee whose struggles to breastfeed at work prompted the legislation, not to mention a pending federal lawsuit against the state. She was so upset about the pending changes she had already left the committee room before the vote.

Still, she said, even a study bill would be preferable to having it killed. “It’s not what should have been passed, but I’m fine with it. I think it is a success. I think it is better than nothing.”

Senate Bill 488, as approved by the Senate, had already been stripped down, compared to the original measure proposed by Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth. The original bill was an attempt to extend and expand federal protections for both pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.

The bill originally required employers to provide reasonable accommodations to both, and the mothers would have been able to take their case to the state Human Rights Commission, and then often to court. That prompted the opposition of the Business and Industry Association of NH, which said it was concerned that the law would affect businesses with as few as six employees – the current Human threshold for filing a complaining with the Human Rights Commission.

Senate changes

The Senate had amended the bill so that only employers with 50 employees would be covered, the same as the law. And it would leave enforcement of the law to the state Department of Labor. The BIA supported that version.

Senator Clark proposed a compromise amendment that would have brought back the pregnancy protections under the Human Rights Commission – though raising the threshold for complaints to 15 employees – and leave breastfeeding to the state DOL.

But her amendment was one of several brought forth. One would bring back what the House Commerce Committee passed last year, another would restrict the breastfeeding protections to state employees. There also were concerns that some of the bill’s language would allow employees to bring their babies to work. (The bill did not provide for direct breastfeeding at work, but for the space to express milk with a breast pump, or enough time to go nearby to breastfeed.) There was also uncertainty over how the legislation would dovetail with federal law, and how it would be applied to hourly or salaried employees.

Hunt, saying the multiple amendments were so confusing, suggested the bill be sent to interim study, which would mean that the Commerce Committee itself would study the bill. But then he agreed that the committee pass a bill that would set up an advisory council to study the workplace lactation issue. “Lactation,” committee members agreed, covers both breastfeeding and expressing milk.

The amendment passed, 18-2, with most Democrats going along.

“This is probably the best we can do,” said Kermit Williams, D-Wilton.

But Rep. Richard Abel, D-Lebanon, disagreed and voted against the amendment. “We didn’t do anything. I think this is a terrible idea.”

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