By Caroline Cummings

ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — The state Legislature this year approved paid break time for nursing mothers in a move that got bipartisan support and that experts call the “next frontier” for gender equity in the workplace.

GOP Sen. Julia Coleman and DFL Rep. Erin Koegel worked together in the House and the Senate to expand the protections, guaranteeing that no one would lose income to pump breast milk.

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Federal law requires most employers to provide reasonable break time, but no compensation is required.

Minnesota is the third state in the country to update the statute so employers can’t dock pay when mothers take that time; Illinois and Georgia previously approved the policy. At least one state, Indiana, requires paid lactation breaks for state employees, but it doesn’t extend to all employers.

“You should never have to decide ‘do I want to maintain my income and keep food on the table for my family? Or do I want to feed my baby?,'” said Coleman, a first-term senator from Chanhassen with three sons under the age of three. “We’re better than that in Minnesota.”

Asked what message the passage of the bill sends to the public: “It says breastfeeding is a part of working moms’ lives. Deal with it,” Coleman said.

Liz Morris is the deputy director of the Center for WorkLife Law, which is a legal team at the UC Hastings School of Law that focuses on gender, racial and class equity in the workplace. Morris co-authored a report that found due to an unintended legal technicality, over 9 million women of childbearing age aren’t covered by the federal Break Time Nursing Mothers Law.

Minnesota law before adding paid break time covered all categories of workers.

“I think paid breaks for lactation is the next frontier,” Morris said, noting that many workers have a right to take a paid break for health reasons. “No mother should be forced to choose between breastfeeding her baby and her livelihood, so laws like this really ensure that no mother has to make that impossible choice.”

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Rep. Erin Koegel, DFL-Spring Lake Park, first pushed for the bill during her second term two years ago. At the time, her infant daughter, Clara, was a fixture around the state capitol, strapped to her mother’s chest as Koegel represented her district during committee meetings and floor debate.

Rep. Erin Koegel, DFL-Spring Lake Park, with her daughter, Clara. (credit: Erin Koegel)

She said she was first surprised to learn about the unpaid lactation law.

“There’s so many jobs that you can sit at your desk and pump,” Koegel said. “But there are so many jobs that you can’t like retail. So making sure that that women have the ability to do that and not be punished for it was one of the key things that I wanted to make sure that we saw happen.”

Working with Coleman was a bipartisan bright spot. Koegel called it an “amazing” opportunity to work on making sure the provision passed both chambers.

“Representation matters,” Koegel said. “And these are those kind of issues where we understand it a little bit better than our male counterparts.”

The changes were included in a larger bill that also expanded pregnancy accommodations — like frequent restroom, food and water breaks and limits on heavy lifting — to cover more workers. Now employers with 15 or more people are required to give those accommodations and workers can request them on day one of employment.

The law takes effect Jan. 1.

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Caroline Cummings