On Tuesday, Texas Takes Baby Steps on Breastfeeding Rights

Research shows breastfeeding newborns until they are at least 6 months old reduces the likelihood of infections and diseases later in life and boosts babies’ immune systems.
Research shows breastfeeding newborns until they are at least 6 months old reduces the likelihood of infections and diseases later in life and boosts babies’ immune systems.

A new law set to take effect September 1 will make it easier for Texas moms like Sarah Kuttesch, a public school teacher, to pump breast milk at work.

Kuttesch, who’s been teaching in Texas for a decade and lives in San Antonio, told the Observer she struggled to find a place to pump when she returned to work after having each of her four children, now aged 8, 6, 3 and 1. While breastfeeding her first child, Kuttesch pumped standing up in a single-occupant restroom. With her second child, she stopped breastfeeding earlier than she wanted to because of the difficulties she had while pumping at work.

She also pumped in her classroom and even in a closet, where janitors would sometimes walk in on her.

“It was difficult,” the 33-year-old mother said. “Having to prepare a space to pump every day definitely impacted the remaining time I had to do my job.”

Kuttesch would often pump during her valuable conference period, time she normally reserved for things like making copies of handouts for her students and planning lessons, because she didn’t have a designated break time.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act already requires employers to provide break times and a private space for hourly workers to express breast milk, and starting Tuesday, Texas’ House Bill 786 extends that guarantee to salaried public employees, including school teachers like Kuttesch. The law, authored by Representative Armando Walle, D-Houston, also applies to city, county and state workers and requires public employers to put their breastfeeding policy in writing.

Research shows breastfeeding newborns until they are at least 6 months old reduces the likelihood of infections and diseases later in life and boosts babies’ immune systems.

Alice Bufkin, policy associate at Texans Care for Children, said the new law not only promotes breastfeeding but also ensures nursing mothers, buoyed by an accommodating work environment, can continue doing so for as long as they choose.

“This new law will make sure that more babies will get off to a healthy start in life,” she said. “It’s incredibly important that we have workplaces that are supportive of moms and their decisions to breastfeed.”

Specifically, HB 786 requires employers to provide a space that is “shielded from view” and “free from intrusion” for mothers to pump. It also allows employers to designate a single-occupant restroom, but not a multi-occupant restroom, as a pumping space. Senator Van Taylor, R-Plano, added the restroom pumping language as a floor amendment in the final days of the legislative session, his staff told the Observer, as a way to shore up more support in the upper chamber.

Walle and some of the bill’s supporters said they were frustrated by Taylor’s last-minute change, arguing any type of restroom, whether single- or multi-use, is an unsanitary place to pump breastmilk. But they saw the amendment as a tough concession necessary for passage.

“In order to get the bill passed, we accepted the amendment as a compromise,” Walle said. “This was a way we could get it done. At the end of the day, it moved the ball forward a little bit.”

Krisdee Donmoyer, coordinator of the Texas Breastfeeding Coalition, said she wants to fix the language next session.

“The hope is that over the next two years we can demonstrate that this is a problem and convince senators that you don’t prepare breast milk in the restroom,” she said.

HB 786 was the only one of seven right-to-breastfeed bills filed this session to pass and one of just two to get a hearing. Advocates and lawmakers who have worked to strengthen breastfeeding rights have told the Observer that these types of bills are difficult to pass for a number of reasons, including a lack of political will, a low awareness of the needs of new, working parents and a “boys’ club” atmosphere at the Lege. But even female Republican lawmakers opposed another breastfeeding reform this session because they believe it would have inappropriately expanded the role of government.

Still, advocates see this session’s bill as momentum for future efforts to strengthen Texas’ right-to-breastfeed laws.

“We’re moving in the right direction and it’s something we’re going to look at next session as well,” Walle said.

Alexa Garcia-Ditta is a staff writer (and former intern) covering women's health, reproductive health and health care access.

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Published at 5:31 pm CST
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