Minnesota can lead for more workplace fairness

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 27, 2014 - 6:14 PM

Passage of the Women’s Economic Security Act was a good start.

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Photo: Rick Nease • Detroit Free Press/MCT,

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It’s too soon to declare that the American women’s movement, begun in 1848 and revived in 1970, is gathering strength for a third wave of sweeping change. But if it is, future historians may note that this time, Minnesota was among the states that got it rolling.

That wasn’t true during two earlier waves. When women pushed for voting rights and the ability to enter male-dominated fields, Minnesota kept pace but was not in the vanguard of change.

But this month’s enactment of the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA) vaulted this state into the lead in efforts to make work fairer and more humane for women — and along the way, for men, too. So said officials at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress, who came to Minnesota last week to praise what the 2014 Legislature accomplished (see accompanying text) and to call for more in 2015. With better protection from workplace discrimination for pregnant women, nursing mothers and parents of both genders, “You’re ahead of the curve,” said Lori Lodes, the Center for American Progress senior vice president.

Yet a gathering in Duluth last week for more than 100 Minnesotans who helped pushed WESA into law was not a victory party. Advocates for gender fairness in the workplace left the 2014 legislative session acutely aware of aims not achieved. They came to plot strategy for their own next wave.

A big part of that strategy will be to enlist more of Minnesota’s working people — men and women — to lend their voices and votes to the cause, said Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, a cosponsor of the Duluth meeting.

“We want to build a grass-roots counterweight” to the employers’ lobbying organizations that were effective in persuading legislators to drop a number of provisions from WESA before it passed. Among the worthy aims they’ll seek:

• Paid sick leave for more workers. An estimated 44 percent of Minnesota’s private-sector employees have no paid sick leave available. Those are typically low-income workers — and in Minnesota, low-income workers are disproportionately female.

Advocates favor a state requirement that one hour of paid sick leave be accrued for every 30 hours an employee works. That’s extreme — and we’d favor some exclusions for smaller employers — but with an estimated two-thirds of working women serving as the primary breadwinner for their households, paid sick leave would be an asset to household stability, not to mention public health.

• More available, affordable child care. As of March, 7,741 families — more than 5,000 of them in Hennepin County alone — were on waiting lists for the state’s income-adjusted child care subsidies for families of modest means via the Basic Sliding Fee program. Young children from those families are being denied access to the higher-quality child care that is beyond the financial reach of working-poor families without the program’s $811 average monthly subsidy.

Considerable state policy focus in recent years has been on providing scholarships for quality preschool for needy families. That emphasis is well justified. But for children too young for preschool, or who live in places where quality preschools are in short supply, Basic Sliding Fee still plays a crucial role. The 2015 Legislature should provide sufficient funding to reach all income-eligible families.

• Pay equity accountability for state contractors. For 30 years, state and local governments have rated their own jobs according to value, then adjusted pay to eliminate gender-based inequities among positions of comparable worth. As a result, a gender gap in pay has disappeared in Minnesota’s public sector.

Advocates sought this year to ask as much of the largest private-sector contractors the state hires, and ran into a wall of business resistance. A more modest self-report of compliance with a 50-year-old federal requirement of equal pay for equal work was enacted instead. That reporting requirement doesn’t seem likely to close a private-sector pay gap estimated at 80 cents for women for every $1 paid to men. Expecting the same compensation fairness of its major contractors as the state demands of itself does not seem unreasonable.

• A ban on discrimination against caregivers. WESA bans discrimination against a worker or a job candidate because he or she is a parent of minor children. That good addition to the state’s Human Rights Act deserves another. Discrimination in hiring, promotion or pay because a worker provides care for an adult relative should also be banned.

That’s a partial list for consideration by the 2015 Legislature. For the women’s movement to truly start moving again, action will be needed in a lot more places than the State Capitol. Average people will need to be engaged in making change, as their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were before them. McGrath of TakeAction said last week that by his measure, the strongest anti-poverty engine in Minnesota today is the activism of this state’s women. Here’s hoping he’s right.

  • ABOUT THE LAW

    The Women’s Economic Security Act, signed into law May 11:

    • Allows workers to use earned sick leave to care for grandchild, mother-in-law or father-in-law, or to deal with sexual assault, domestic violence or stalking. (2013 legislation allowed its use for care of a child of any age or a spouse, sibling, parent, grandparent or stepparent.)

    • Bars employer retaliation for requesting or using earned sick leave.

    • Bars discrimination in hiring, firing, promotion or compensation for reasons of pregnancy or parenting of minor children.

    • Increases required unpaid leave allowance for pregnancy, birth or adoption from six to 12 weeks.

    • Requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees and employees who express breast milk during unpaid breaks.

    • Bars reprisals against employees who discuss their compensation with co-workers.

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