A decades-long effort to expand women’s rights to breastfeed at work has been stalled near the finish line due to opposition from the airline industry, according to a senator involved in the fight.
Known as the Nursing Mothers’ Emergency Maternal Protection Act or PUMP Act, the bipartisan bill will guarantee more US workers time and space to express breast milk while at work. Legislation has already passed the House, but has hit roadblocks in the Senate, where Democrats need more GOP support.
Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), who sponsored the bill along with Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), told HuffPost that some senators have delayed the bill due to resistance from airlines. He said Senate staff are working on language in the bill to align with the industry, but airlines still oppose it.
“For months, we have worked tirelessly in good faith to address every single cost and safety concern,” Merkley said in a statement. “These are the same airlines that say they are very concerned about the health and well-being of their employees. Yet they prevent their employees from expressing breast milk at work.”
“They’re preventing this not just for their employees, but for the other 9 million workers across the country,” the Senator added.
The Affordable Care Act of 2010, popularly known as Obamacare, set a new requirement for employers to provide workers with a clean, private space and reasonable break time to milk their babies. But because the rule adhered to the minimum wage and overtime law, it excluded millions of salaried workers and other categories of workers – a carved out application of the PUMP Act intended to end.
“Any airline that says it supports women’s right to pump in aviation is lying because they’re not telling these Republicans to back off.”
– Sara Nelson, president of the AFA-CWA
Both the rail and airline industries have said they have issues with the PUMP Act, arguing that their unique work environments require special attention. Supporters of the bill reached an agreement with railroad representatives to address their concerns, but failed to do so, with airlines seeking specific language regarding flight attendants and pilots.
The most recent version of the bill would not allow workers to pump during critical flight periods, including takeoff and landing, which the bill’s supporters hoped would end the standoff. It would also allow air carriers to comply with the law by hanging a curtain for privacy so they don’t have to refurbish planes.
But the industry is also looking for language that guarantees that all state laws regarding breast milking will take precedence and not apply to them.
Delta, United, and American Airlines all declined to comment when asked if they supported the PUMP Act, citing HuffPost, an industry trade lobby, for Airlines for America.
A spokesperson for the group said in a statement that airlines “already voluntarily” provide time and accommodation to pump, insisting that “in-flight crew duties are inherently unique”.
“As safety is and always will be our priority, we continue to advocate for a consistent federal standard for our flight crews that keeps them and our passengers safe,” the group said.
Sara Nelson, president of the Flight Attendants Association-CWA union, said the industry’s seeking a preemption from state law was a “delay tactic”. She described the airlines’ opposition as “disgusting” and said they were trying to “hide behind” trade groups, She said.
“At this point, it’s about killing him,” Nelson said. “Any airline that says it supports women’s right to pump in aviation is lying because they’re not telling these Republicans to back off.”
Democrats and many Republicans agree that ensuring that breastfeeding mothers can express milk at work is a common sense, family-friendly policy. But it’s also about basic dignity and health at work. Failure to pump when necessary can lead to severe pain and infection.
The 2019 HuffPost investigation documented workers who developed mastitis after their employers prevented them from pumping them at work. Many companies are still reluctant to set up special pumping areas or give workers a break, even for those under the law.
“These are the same airlines that say they have great concern for the health and well-being of their employees.”
– Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)
Flight crews should be included in the law because “most days it’s physically impossible to pump your flights,” Nelson said. Nelson said that even if some airlines voluntarily adapt to pumping, airline crews need guarantees under the law like other workers.
“I did this. It’s really tough,” he said. “The flight attendants are running it today, but guess what? There are no rules around it.
The window for the bill to become law is narrowing, as Democrats lose a majority in the House of Representatives when the new Congress is sworn in next month. The best way to pass the law would be to include it in a multi-purpose spending package before Christmas if the measure gets enough support.
Dozens of House Republicans voted in favor of the PUMP Act when it was passed in October 2021, but lawmakers will have to approve another GOP-led version if supporters fail to cross the finish line this year. The bill is unlikely to have the same priority in a Republican Assembly.
One lawmaker who opposes the law, Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, declined to voice his concerns when asked by HuffPost. He acknowledged that there were “staff-to-staff” conversations about airlines’ problems.
“I don’t think it will fly,” Wicker said of the bill.
Igor Bobic provided additional reporting.