AUGUSTA, Maine -– A bill that adds protections for nursing mothers in the workplace won House approval by a vote of 90-52 on Thursday, according to the House Majority Office.
The bill, LD 777, would make it unlawful employment discrimination under the Maine Human Rights Act for an employer to fail to provide accommodations for a nursing employee.
“Maine has a rich history of leading the nation on important civil rights protections, but nursing mothers have fallen through the cracks,” Rep. Anne Graham, D-North Yarmouth, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement. “Working mothers deserve full equality in the workplace.”
Current law, which was established in 2009, requires employers to grant workers unpaid break time and “make reasonable efforts” to provide a clean location, other than a bathroom, to allow mothers to nurse or express milk in private.
However, the penalties employers face for shirking the law are inadequate, according to Rep. Charles Priest, D-Brunswick, House chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Judiciary.
The most severe sanction an employer can receive under current law is a $500 fine and nothing in the law requires an employer to rehire a worker who was fired for nursing, according to Priest.
If LD 777 becomes law, working mothers would have recourse under the Maine Human Rights Act if their employer fails to comply with the law. The Maine Human Rights Act provides a fact-finding process that encourages the employer and worker to resolve matters without going to court.
“Seventy percent of mothers are in the workforce and a growing number of mothers are the sole breadwinners for their families,” said Rep. Ann Dorney, D-Norridgewock, a family practitioner. “The children of working mothers should be able to have the long-term health benefits that the nutritional and infection-fighting properties of breast milk provide.”
Supports of the bill include the Maine Human Rights Commission and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. Opponents of the bill include the Maine Restaurant Association and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
Peter Gore, the chamber’s vice president for advocacy, said current law is adequate and that additional enforcement provisions are “unnecessary.”
“Adding additional and conflicting enforcement language will only lead to confusion for employers and employees,” he said in written testimony.
The bill faces a vote in the Senate.