Gov. Mark Dayton rang in Mother’s Day Sunday by giving final approval to a package of bills aimed at improving conditions for women in the workplace.

The Women’s Economic Security Act, comprised of nine separate pieces of legislation, won legislative approval last week with bipartisan support. It forces about 1,000 state contractors to certify that they pay men and women equally for similar jobs, extends parental leave from six to 12 weeks and requires employers to make new accommodations for expectant and new mothers.

Dayton signed the bill surrounded by women at an event at the governor’s reception room. Women’s groups fought hard for the package.

“Nothing else like this is happening in the nation,” said Lee Roper-Batker, president of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. “I have to tell you the nation is watching and cheering … right now.”

The initial cost of the effort is expected to be about $2.46 million. About $711,000 of that will ensure contractors are meeting equal pay provisions, with much of the remainder geared toward grants and programs that boost female entrepreneurship and ­women’s ­participation in “nontraditional” occupations. Monitoring the pay equity component will have an ongoing cost of about $926,000 a year.

Foreshadowing the bill’s possible role as a DFL talking point during the upcoming election season, House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, called it a “capstone” to the last two years of work in the DFL-controlled legislature.

“It really is about fairness,” Thissen said.

“I think that’s been one of the hallmarks of this biennium, that we have focused on trying to create a Minnesota where fairness is there for everybody and everybody has an equal opportunity to get ahead in all realms of life.”

Foes claim overreach

Opponents of the bill said during floor debates that it was an overreach of government and unfairly assumed women need extra help in the workplace.

“I will not stand here and vote for a bill that promotes one gender over another,” said Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, during a debate in April. “If you work hard, if you compete better, you will find opportunities whether you are a man or a woman.”

Regarding equal pay, the bill requires the state to issue an “equal pay certificate” to businesses of more than 40 employees seeking contracts of at least $500,000.

Among other conditions, that certificate will be issued based on whether the contractor’s “average compensation for its female employees is not consistently below the average compensation for its male employees” in job categories defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Bill sponsor Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said contractors can cite education and experience levels as reasons why pay is not equal.

“If the commissioner audits, and finds out that those reasons are not at play, then there’s a negotiation process that would happen with the business,” said Pappas.

To that point, the legislation states that employers cannot stop employees from discussing their wages, nor punish them for doing so.

It also extends how long an employer must grant unpaid leave for pregnancy from six to twelve weeks. Employers must provide accommodations, if they are requested, for pregnant employees to have frequent restroom, food and water breaks and not lift more than 20 pounds.

The bill also clarifies that employers must provide more than a bathroom for nursing mothers to breast feed. Additionally, it allows employees to take “safety leave” if they are receiving assistance for sexual assault, domestic abuse or stalking.

“It’s disappointing that after 30 years that so much was still left undone that this bill addresses,” Dayton said.