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Air, Rail Groups Stymie Push to Expand Breastfeeding Protections

June 29, 2022, 9:00 AM

Lingering concerns from the transportation industry are threatening to derail a bill to expand workplace protections for nursing parents.

Lawmakers have been pushing for years to expand on-the-job pumping protections to more workers, legislation that some say is particularly needed now that formula is scarce and the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have increased the need to entice parents back into the workforce. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), however, blocked a bill that aimed to do that last week, driven by concerns that its requirements are “overly broad and burdensome” for transportation workplaces.

Proponents were surprised by the transportation industry opposition, especially since the bill had been modified to accommodate criticisms from some of the affected industries, including airlines and fast food. Lummis says she is working with industry to propose changes, but the path forward is unclear as the legislation has been languishing in the Senate for months and the bill’s sponsors say they’ve already worked through concerns.

A flight attendant walks through an plane headed to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on Nov. 24, 2021.
Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Tina Sherman, a senior campaign director at MomsRising, a policy group prioritizing moms and families, said the block was “startling.”

“It’s been passed out of the Senate committee for a year, and just now, aviation and railway are coming?” she said. “With the formula shortage, we are just doubly taxing parents at this point.”

Break Times

Lummis argues the bill (S. 1658), which requires employers to offer nursing workers reasonable break times and private lactation space, doesn’t provide enough flexibility for transportation employers, including railroads. The House passed a similar version (H.R. 3110) last year by 276-149.

“Many women in this industry are quite literally keeping the trains running on time—entire supply chains could be disrupted,” Lummis said.

Major transportation groups, including the American Trucking Associations, the Association of American Railroads, and Airlines for America, supported the objection, taking to social media to thank Lummis and proposing different paths forward to tweak the legislation.

Many employers are currently required to offer time and space to nursing workers, but others—including teachers, agricultural workers, and airline workers—do not get those protections.

“No business, industry, or Senator should be standing in the way and forcing some employees to stop nursing their babies,” bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said in a statement to Bloomberg Government. “We now have the benefit of over ten years of evidence showing that this straightforward policy can be accommodated in all industries and business settings.”

Path Forward

Abegail Cave, press secretary for Lummis, said the senator has been in touch with major industry groups about their concerns and is working on an amendment that “would ensure burdensome federal regulations do not cripple the transportation sector.“

But Merkley and others said they had already worked with industries to address their concerns. Merkley said railroads weren’t among the groups who came to them in the past and that they had already worked out industries that needed special accommodations.

“We’re going to want to work with members in both the House and the Senate to try to find a solution, and pathway forward here. Honestly, this is the first that we’ve heard of objections from the railroad industry,” Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO.

Jessica Kahanek, senior director of media relations at the Association of American Railroads, said the group found out that the legislation was moving the Friday before at 5 p.m.

“While railroads support finding a path forward that broadly enhances nursing parents ability to pump, the physical limitations of a locomotive and freight operational demands make the existing language unworkable for the rail industry,” Kahanek said. “Freight railroads are working to secure the most narrow carve out that would only apply to employees in the locomotive.”

MomsRising’s Sherman pushed back against the railway industry’s issues with the legislation, saying a “separate train car” is not required as an accommodation—sometimes the only item required is a curtain.

It isn’t just railroads. Nick Geale, vice president of workforce policy at the American Trucking Associations, said in an email that retrofitting millions of trucks could be “costly for the industry, inflationary, and take a great deal of time before benefitting our employees.”

Airlines Rebuke

Airlines have also previously pushed back on the legislation—criticisms that worker groups and lawmakers thought had been settled in Merkley’s amendment. It wouldn’t require airlines to offer breaks during “critical phases of flight” or incur “significant expense” — offering the option of a curtain.

Airlines for America said in a statement it would continue to “work closely with legislators and industry stakeholders on a national, one-standard solution to address the challenges” the legislation “poses to all non-stationary industries, including transportation.” The airlines trade group said it was “important that we take the time to get this legislation right.”

But Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-Communications Workers of America, said that they have been discussing this with airlines and lawmakers since last summer. Nelson said airlines have only gone backward in their proposals after concessions were made to make sure it isn’t a major cost and doesn’t interfere with their work.

(The Washington-Baltimore News Guild, which is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, represents employees of Bloomberg Government).

“We have worked diligently and in good faith and we don’t believe that they have and this recent stunt is absolutely evidence of that,” Nelson said. “It is shameful that they would do this in the middle of a formula crisis.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com; Paige Smith in Washington at psmith@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com