Republican "family values" on display in Iowa Senate

Last Thursday, the Iowa Senate approved a bill that would improve the health and well-being of Iowa working mothers and their children. In addition, this bill would reduce many employers’ health care costs while lowering employee turnover and absenteeism. Unlike legislation that pits business interests against the needs of working families, this bill would be a win-win.

Nevertheless, almost the whole Republican caucus voted against Senate File 2270, which promotes workplace accommodations for employees who express breast milk.

Follow me after the jump for background on this bill and Republican opposition to it.

The full text of Senate File 2270 is here. Excerpt:

 1 19    1.  An employer shall provide reasonable unpaid break time or

 1 20 permit an employee to use paid break time, meal time, or both,

 1 21 each day, to allow the employee to express breast milk for the

 1 22 employee’s nursing child for up to two years after the child’s

 1 23 birth.

 1 24    2.  The employer shall make reasonable efforts to provide a

 1 25 place, other than a toilet stall, which is shielded from view

 1 26 and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, that may

 1 27 be used by an employee to express breast milk in privacy.

 1 28    3.  An employer who makes reasonable efforts to accommodate

 1 29 an employee who chooses to express breast milk in the workplace

 1 30 shall be deemed to be in compliance with the requirements of

 1 31 this section.

 1 32    4.  The department of workforce development shall provide on

 1 33 its internet site information and links to other internet sites

 1 34 where employers can access information regarding methods to

 1 35 accommodate employees who express breast milk in the workplace.

 2  1 The department shall consult with appropriate organizations

 2  2 or associations to determine the appropriate information and

 2  3 internet site links so as to provide employers with the most

 2  4 accurate and useful information available.

Sounds reasonable, in light of the long list of health and emotional benefits that breastfeeding provides to mothers and babies. Children and adults who were breastfed have lower rates of diabetes and obesity, and women who have breastfed reduce their own risk of developing heart disease.

Because breastfed babies are healthier, their mothers have lower rates of absenteeism than formula-feeding mothers. Health care costs for the employer also go down because on average, breastfed babies require fewer doctor’s visits and less prescription medication. In addition, making it easier for employees to express milk at work is associated with lower employee turnover rates, “earlier return from maternity leave, higher productivity, morale, loyalty, and recognition as a ‘family-friendly’ worksite.” Click here for more information on “the business case for breastfeeding.”

SF 2270 is so reasonable that two dozen states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar laws. It’s so reasonable that it passed unanimously out of the Iowa Senate Labor and Business Relations Committee. On this page you can download the Senate Journal for February 10, which covers the 10-0 vote for SF 2270 on page 17. The four Republicans who voted for the bill were Pat Ward, Hubert Houser, Ron Wieck and Brad Zaun.

On February 18, SF 2270 passed on a 29-15 vote. The Senate Journal from that day, which you can download here, lists the roll call. All 28 Democratic senators who were present voted yes, joined by Republican Shawn Hamerlinck. Republicans Wieck and Ward were absent. The other 15 Senate Republicans all voted no, including Houser and Zaun, who had supported the bill in committee the previous week.

I wondered why 15 Republicans would vote against a bill that provides such important benefits to working mothers and their families. Jennifer Jacobs reported for the Des Moines Register,

Sen. Nancy Boettger, R-Harlan, said she breast fed all four of her children, but she thinks this is an unfair mandate on Iowa businesses.

Seeking more information about Boettger’s reasoning, I obtained the audio file from the Senate’s discussion of this bill. I can’t seem to embed the file, so here are the highlights. Democratic Senator Pam Jochum introduced the bill, noting that 67 percent of Iowa women work outside the home, and that our state has one of the highest percentages of families in which both parents work outside the home. She mentioned several of the health benefits of breastfeeding for babies and mothers, as well as the benefits for society when breastfed babies require fewer medical office visits and hospitalizations. She added that many women don’t continue to breastfeed because it is hard for them to express breast milk at work. Jochum noted, “None of us eat our lunch in a toilet stall, and probably even more appropriate, none of us prepare our meals in a toilet stall. And yet we’re requiring many working mothers to do just that for their infants.”

Republican Senator Boettger didn’t dispute the importance of breastfeeding, but she said no one had ever approached her saying we need this kind of a law. “I am not aware that people are being denied access to a place where they can expel breast milk.” She then asked Jochum if she had heard from a lot of people that it’s a problem.

Jochum replied that while a number of Iowa businesses do accommodate breastfeeding mothers, many women are still required to use toilet stalls to express milk. (Note from desmoinesdem: I have met women who had to pump in toilet stalls or in their parked cars.)

Boettger then responded, “Ladies and gentlemen, when there’s a problem for one or two or three people, we don’t need to make a law that’s imposed on businesses across the state. This is just one more thing that this legislature is imposing on small business, another unfunded mandate.” She encouraged colleagues to vote no.

In her closing remarks, Jochum pointed out that this bill is “not a mandate.” The bill requires employers to make “reasonable efforts” to accommodate employees and defines “reasonable efforts” as “any effort that would not impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.” The bill also defines “undue hardship” as “any action that requires significant difficulty or expense when considered in relation to factors such as the size of the business, the financial resources of the business, or the nature and the structure of its operation.”

Even after listening to the Senate debate, I didn’t understand why almost the whole Republican caucus would vote against this bill. Boettger cited no data to support her ill-informed assumption that this bill would be bad for businesses. She hasn’t studied this problem and wrongly assumes it affects just a handful of people. Her claim about “unfunded mandates” wasn’t even accurate.

I decided to check the lobbyist declarations on SF 2270 (the link is on the left side of this page). Lobbyists registered for the bill represented the Child and Family Policy Center, the Iowa Nurses Association, the Iowa Department of Human Rights and various labor unions. (Side note: I was disappointed to see the lobbyists for the Iowa Medical Society registered as “undecided.” The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a baby’s life. Mothers working outside the home would find it impossible to do that if their employers did not accommodate expressing milk at work.)

Quite a few corporations, industry associations and business groups employ lobbyists at the Iowa Capitol. But as you can see here, none of them opposed this bill. Almost all of the business lobbyists registered as “undecided,” including those representing major employers and the Iowa Chamber Alliance. (In contrast, a small army of business lobbyists are opposing House File 2420, the “fair share” bill on public employee collective bargaining.)

In fact, only three lobbyists registered against the breastfeeding bill: John Gilliland, Nicole Molt and Michael Ralston. They all represent only one client: the Iowa Association of Business and Industry. Ralston is that organization’s president, Gilliland is senior vice president for Government Relations and Molt is director for Government Relations. Apparently ABI is not aware that businesses benefit from policies to accommodate their breastfeeding employees.

ABI works closely with Iowa Republicans. Gilliland and Molt have both worked for Republican elected officials, and Gilliland was the GOP nominee for secretary of state in 1998, the first year Chet Culver was elected to that office.

I don’t know whether most of the Iowa Senate Republicans took their marching orders from ABI, or whether both the senators and ABI simply had a knee-jerk reaction against this bill because Democrats and labor unions were supporting it.

The bottom line is, when they had a chance to do something for the health and well-being of working families, almost all the Iowa Senate Republicans said no. Empty “pro-business” talking points trumped the real-world interests of Iowa families.

That tells you something about Republican family values.

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