The House DFL’s pre-session agenda continued its steady march through the Legislature as a Senate panel on Monday unanimously approved the Women’s Economic Security Act, a wide-ranging package of bills that features such hard-to-oppose provisions as a doubling of unpaid maternity leave, more workplace protections for pregnant and nursing women, and an extension of unemployment benefits to victims of sexual assault and stalking.
The legislation also targets a more persistent, less easily remedied problem: the gender pay gap. Despite state and federal pay equity laws, women in Minnesota earn, on average, 80 percent as much as their white male counterparts.
To level that playing field, the Senate bill funds programs to lure more women into better-paying male-dominated fields, and would also impose pay equity compliance requirements on companies that do business with the state. The bill also contains a provision to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour, echoing a measure that passed both chambers in 2013 and remains before a deadlocked conference committee.
Although the latter measure is not gender specific, WESA’s backers cast it as women’s issue because of the disproportionate number of women in low-paying occupations.
Daycare subsidies left aside
In a telephone interview, Debra Fitzpatrick, the director of the Center on Women and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, called WESA “unique and holistic” in its approach.
Fitzpatrick, who has testified in support of WESA a half dozen times at the Capitol so far this year, said she was among those recruited to work on the package in late December by House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, and Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul.
Despite the tight time frame, the legislation was relatively easy to craft, Fitzpatrick said, in part because an established body of research on women, pay and poverty points to the solutions.
“Some people say it’s just political. But the fact of the matter is, these kinds of things are supported by a very broad swath of the public,” Fitzpatrick said.
Nonetheless, not all the original measures contemplated for inclusion in WESA survived the travels through legislative committees. The most expensive proposal — a major expansion of public child care subsidies with costs that would have dwarfed the roughly $2.6 million tabbed for WESA’s other mandates — didn’t make the cut.
With costs running into “a couple hundred million dollars,” Fitzpatrick wasn’t surprised to see the day care expansion dropped, especially given the intense competition for surplus dollars and the fact that the Legislature is not in a budget year.
A separate proposal with financial implications for the private sector — a requirement that employers provide one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked — was also scrapped in the face of opposition.
But just as telling as those dollars and cents decisions, at least in terms of the intersection of politics and policy, is the issue that never even became part of the WESA debate: women’s reproductive health.
“Obviously, family planning is an important element in women’s economic security,” Fitzpatrick said. “We just decided that this particular package this particular year wasn’t the right place to address it. We wanted to narrow the focus and not take on an unnecessary fight.”
As a purely practical consideration, the exclusion makes sense. Consider the cautionary tale of New York’s Women’s Equality Act, which was similar to WESA in scope and ambition. One of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature efforts from 2013, the act stalled in the state legislature because of a provision that would have expanded women’s access to abortion.
Katie Fischer Ziegler, a program manager at the Women’s Legislative Network of National Conference of State Legislatures, said lawmakers in other states are currently pursuing many of the woman-friendly measures incorporated in WESA.
“But they haven’t been under one umbrella and marketed together as they were in Minnesota,” she noted. “This whole awareness campaign is pretty different. Only time will tell if it’s effective but it certainly has attracted a lot of attention, even outside of Minnesota.”
Appeal to single women
In political terms, a major question for Democrats in Minnesota and across the country is whether such a focus on gender issues will help boost turnout of a key voting bloc: single women.
In 2012 elections, many Democrats successfully leveraged election-season Republican gaffes such as “legitimate rape” and “binders of women.” More recently, the White House has signaled a return to the successful war-on-women messaging, as have other Democrats elsewhere in the country. In the Virginia gubernatorial race last year, Terry McAuliffe hammered his opponent on women’s issues and captured the unmarried women demographic by 42 percent (a bigger margin than Obama), which became a critical factor in a narrow victory.
With control of the House and the governor’s mansion at stake, such considerations are relevant to Minnesota DFLers. Historically, midterm elections are disastrous for the party that holds the White House, especially during the sixth year of an incumbency. While the dynamic is most commonly associated with outcomes of congressional races, it also reverberates in state legislative contests.
Just as Democrats look to counteract the trends by whipping up the base with female-friendly legislation such as WESA, Republicans appear inclined to tread lightly on women’s issues so as not revisit their well-publicized “female troubles” of recent years.
Judging by the Minnesota Senate hearing on WESA this Monday, at least, restraint seems to be the operative strategy among Minnesota Republicans. Appearing before the Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Division of the Finance Committee, a succession of women witnesses testified about the need for the legal protections prescribed by WESA.
Republicans committee members had no questions for Tara Duncan, a nursing mother who said she was abruptly fired from her secretarial job after informing her boss she needed two breaks a day to pump milk. Under a WESA provision sponsored by Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, employers would be required to provide mothers with a private space — “other than a bathroom” — and violations deemed an unfair employment practice.
Likewise, committee members had no inquiries of Danielle Hans, who testified that her boss threatened to fire her for complaining that a less experienced male co-worker was paid more. By contrast, Heather Robinson told the committee she was humiliated when she found out she was paid less than a newbie male colleague but, because of a confidentiality agreement, was legally forbidden from even mentioning the fact. That, too, elicited no queries.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigsten, R-Alexandria, did have questions about one aspect of WESA: a proposal, by Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, for a $750,000 study to examine the feasibility of establishing a state retirement savings plan for people who don’t have access to an employer-based option.
Ingebrigsten said the proposal sounded to him like a state-run Social Security program. Having just turned 62 and reviewed his Social Security account, he lamented that he didn’t have the opportunity to invest those savings in the private markets.