Proponents seek to return ‘reasonable accommodations’ to breastfeeding bill

NH House panel mulls changes to measure aimed at protecting mothers

Reasonable accommodations and pregnancy protections will be put back into a bill to help breastfeeding moms, if the NH House agrees to a proposed amendment to Senate Bill 488.

Both provisions were taken out of the bill at the last minute before it was approved by the Senate. They were withdrawn, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, told the House Commerce Committee on Tuesday, to address concerns raised about the bill by business organizations.

Many any of those concerns were addressed, said David Juvet, vice president of the Business and Industry Association of NH, but the BIA still won’t support Clark’s amendment, though Juvet made it clear it would back the bill that came over from the Senate.

The big issue is over “reasonable accommodations,” the legal language often evoked in disability law, which strikes fear into the hearts of some employers.

SB 488, as originally proposed by Clark, would apply that language for both pregnant workers and breastfeeding mothers, who would have been able to take their case to the state Human Rights Commission, and then often to court.

There are federal protections for both pregnancy and expressing breast milk (the bill provides no accommodation for mothers who want to directly breastfeed their child at work).

The Senate Commerce Committee passed the original bill unanimously, but when it reached the full Senate, it was amended on the floor.

The words, “reasonable accommodations,” were stripped from the title, as were pregnancy protections. Employers would have to provide a “reasonable” break time for expressing breast milk as well as a sanitary place that is not a bathroom. The statute would be enforced by the state Department of Labor, which means that violations would more likely be punished by a fine rather than a court suit. In addition, only employers with more than 50 workers would be covered.

Under Clark’s amendment, the reasonable accommodations language, and the Human Rights Commission’s role, would return, but would only pertain to pregnancy, not to breast pumping. But the bill would still be enforced by the Department of Labor. And businesses with 15 or more employees would be covered by the law. Previously, it was employers with six or more.

The amendment would also add a committee to study how to better process Human Rights Commission complaints, which can languish for years. Just last year, said Clark, there were 21 cases filed concerning pregnancy and breastfeeding issues, and the state hasn’t even passed the law yet.

Indeed, Juvet said that is one of the main reasons the BIA still opposes the bill – concern that it would further backlog such cases.

But proponents of the measure all lauded the amendment, arguing that it wouldn’t just help workers, but help attract younger families to New Hampshire, which the state needs to thrive.

One testified that that her former workplace accommodated cigarette smokers more than they did a breastfeeding mom. 

And Kate Frederick, who is suing the state over limits placed on her efforts to breastfeed her son, said the state treated those seeking to enlarge their breasts got better accommodations.

Frederick has been pushing legislation for the last three years, and has seen previous bills work their way through the legislative process only to get nixed at the end.

“Please agree and pass something,” she pleaded. “Please help us, not just me.”

Flexible work arrangements

Meanwhile, the House Labor Committee considered Senate Bill 416, which forbid employer from retaliating against a worker for asking for flexible working arrangements.

The bill originally required employers to give employees two weeks’ notice of their schedule and forced them to give a reason why they wouldn’t grant flexible working arrangements, though it didn’t actually require that they do so. This time, there was no attempt to put some of that original language back. It just forbid retaliation.

Juvet said the BIA would not oppose this bill.

While some BIA members said they were nervous that “retaliation” charges could complicate an employer’s right to fire workers for other reasons, most thought of it as “benign, and doesn’t cause us any heartburn,” Juvet said.

Sponsor Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, pitched the measure as business-friendly.

“Companies are losing workers because they are afraid to ask for a little bit of flexibility,” he said. “Now workers will be empowered to engage in these discussions and it would help businesses keep their great workers.“

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