A wide-ranging measure that promotes equal pay for women and protections for pregnant and nursing women as well as victims of domestic abuse cleared the Minnesota Senate by a wide margin Wednesday.

The Women's Economic Security Act passed 51-14 after about an hour's debate. The Act, consisting of nine bills, is geared toward evening the playing field for Minnesota's women workers at a cost of $2.7 million.

Highlights of the Act, spearheaded by Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, include:

  • $1 million in grants awarded to organizations that help women land high-wage nontraditional jobs and to assist female entrepreneurs.
  • Requires businesses with more than 40 employees bidding on high-dollar state contracts to obtain an equal pay certificate of compliance to ensure they're in compliance with existing laws
  • Bans punishment or retaliation against employees who discuss their how much they make.
  • Requires employers to provide a place other than a bathroom for nursing mothers to pump milk.
  • Extends unpaid maternity leave from six to 12 weeks, extends use of sick leave to caring for grandchildren.
  • Extends unemployment benefits to workers forced to quit their jobs as a result of sexual assault or stalking.

Opponents of the Act criticized the differences between the bills lumped together, while others said the spirit of the bill was fundamentally unfair.
"I will not stand here and vote for a bill that promotes one gender over another," said Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville.

Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said plenty of women past and present have made it on their own without government assistance.

"What are we telling women? Unless the government steps up you're not smart enough, you're not tough enough; you're not capable enough to be successful on your own?"

A House version of the Act passed 106-24. It heads next to conference committee.