Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is making women's economic security the focus of his office's latest task force, zeroing in on a priority he has targeted since taking office in 2019.

Adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has only aggravated historical economic inequities for women, Ellison said Thursday that he is taking applications for the 15-member group and set a Jan. 4 application deadline.

Dubbed the Task Force on Expanding the Economic Security of Women, Ellison's group will follow similar efforts launched in recent years that included task forces on drug pricing and deadly police encounters. Like previous installments, this new group will again include state lawmakers, government officials, advocates, academics and other members of the public.

The task force is meant to pick up from the state's 2014 Women's Economic Security Act — something Ellison has said was a priority of his first term in office. That law improved workplace protections and broadened economic opportunities for women in the state, but Ellison said barriers still exist for women, particularly those in minority communities.

"Women's economic insecurity isn't just an economic wrong — it's a moral wrong that hurts all of us. But it doesn't have to be that way," Ellison said in a statement Thursday. "Minnesota has led the way on economic equality and opportunity before: with this task force, I want us to lead again."

The attorney general's task force will be asked to spot examples of barriers to equality, which Ellison said includes gender-based pricing in consumer goods and services and the disproportionate economic effects of COVID-19 on women. His task force will also be charged with studying possible solutions and will ultimately send a set of recommendations for lawmakers to consider.

Megan Peterson, executive director of Gender Justice, said that the pandemic has "really laid bare just how dire" economic disparities are for women in Minnesota. Many women are leaving the workforce because of a lack of child care and are making that choice because theirs is so often the lesser of two salaries in their households, Peterson said.

Recent cases resolved by Peterson's nonprofit legal group have offered a window into areas where the 2014 law could be strengthened, she added. Gender Justice represented a woman whose child suffered severe weight loss because the mother was not afforded adequate time to pump breastmilk at work. Peterson said the state law does not clarify what "reasonable" break time means. A state program to eliminate gender pay gaps, meanwhile, only applies to state workers.

"I think that a task force like this is really an opportunity to go big and set a vision and put forward a bold agenda," Peterson said. "This is what it is really going to take. We need to look at real support for universal child care, long-term care, paid family medical leave — really addressing the problem of child care in our state."

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755

Twitter: @smontemayor