An effort that will culminate with a June 23 White House Summit on Working Families got its national start in Duluth when the Minnesota Women & Families Economic Security Summit was held at the DECC Thursday. The event drew 150 participants from around the state, including elected officials, people working on the issues, workers, and women who are looking to find their way in this economy.
Sponsored by TakeAction Minnesota and the Center for American Progress Action Fund the daylong forum focused on placing the economic security of women and families at the center of public policy debates. Similar state-based summits examining policy changes needed to ensure that women and their families have a fair shot at getting ahead, not just getting by, are planned.
There are many embarrassing statistics when it comes to women, employment and economics. Minnesota earns a C+ grade and is ranked 21st nationally on women’s issues, so it has nothing to brag about. The good news is that on Mother’s Day the Women’s Economic Security Act was signed by Governor Mark Dayton.
Here’s the bad news:
• Women make 77¢ for every dollar a man makes at similar jobs. In Minnesota its 80¢/$1 but in Senate Districts 3 and 6 it’s 64¢, SD 5 is at 72¢;
• Women are primary breadwinners in 41% of families, co-breadwinners in another 23%. Minnesota leads the nation in having 80% of women working and they are the primary wage earners in half the state’s families;
• Women are 2/3rds of all minimum wage workers. More than 12% of women in Minnesota live in poverty.
Those are troubling statistics but its much worse than that for many women trying to find jobs or in low paying jobs trying to support their families and/or pay for child care, afford health care, and such.
The Women's Economic Security Act is a huge step in the right direction for Minnesota. Senator Sandy Pappas and Rep. Carly Melin authored the bill, which began as a 15 bill package and ended up as 9, when some things, such as the minimum wage increase became stand alone legislation.
Pappas addressed Duluth’s summit and said the Act came out of research from the University of Minnesota Humphrey Center and from the Minnesota Women’s Foundation. She said not only were the dismal statistics listed above troubling but it was found women face a gender bias in hiring, low wage and part time job segregation, and dire consequences for getting pregnant while working.
“Men with children are considered to be stable (by employers), but if women get pregnant they aren’t dedicated to their job,” Pappas said. She related a story about a woman fired for pumping breast milk on her break time.
It’s stories like that which swayed some legislators to vote for WESA. Others were swayed by statistics. None could ignore the grassroots organizing and public pressure brought to bear.
“We had to fight to keep it from becoming a toothless bill, so we took the strongest bill and won 34-33 in not having it sent back to conference committee,” Pappas said. Some conservative senators were called by their mothers, she said, to sway them.
The Women's Economic Security Act will:
• Expand unpaid leave under the Minnesota Parental Leave Act from 6 to 12 weeks and allows the use of leave under the Parental Leave Act for pregnancy-related needs;
• Lets mothers stay in the workforce by expanding family leave and providing reasonable accommodations for pregnant and nursing employees;
• Decreases the gender pay gap through the participation of women in high-wage, high-demand occupations in fields such as science, technology, engineering, and math;
• Support the development of high economic impact women-owned businesses in non-traditional industries;
• Requires private sector businesses with 40 or more employees seeking state contracts over $500,000 to comply with the state’s pay equity policy, by certifying they are paying men and women in the same job categories equally;
• Allows grandparents to use existing earned sick leave to care for an ill or injured grandchild;
• Addresses negative economic consequences of domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault;
• Expands unemployment insurance eligibility currently available to victims of domestic violence to include victims of stalking and sexual assault;
• Lets employees use existing earned sick leave to recover from sexual assault, domestic violence, or stalking;
There is much that still needs to be done to give women a fair shot. (Visit www.fairshotcampaign.org for more.)
Minnesota House Speaker Paul Thissen was keynote speaker for the Duluth summit. He said it was a great year for women and Minnesota in the legislative session but there is much to be done.
Balancing the budget means the crisis governing of the last 10 years can end, workers were helped in getting out of poverty by the minimum wage increase and WESA, education reform will help many families get into, or stay in, the middle class, and MnSURE brings equity and the sense of health care as a right.
“Most important to me was the Women’s Economic Security Act,” said Thissen. “It builds opportunity for working and middle class families that had not shared in America’s prosperity.” As important as the policy victories were, having the profile of those issues raised and dialogue about them increase statewide was perhaps more important he said. “Senator Pappas and Representative Melin did incredible lifting from January to May,” Thissen said. “They did in a few months what you would expect to take a few years.”
He said in 1984 Minnesota brought pay equity to the public sector where it had been 67¢ for women to a man’s dollar. Now its the same for men and women and if employers want to contract with the State of Minnesota they have to offer equal pay.
Both Pappas and Thissen spoke of next steps for women's economic security:
• require employers to provide paid sick leave
• protect family care givers in their workplace
• make child care affordable
• make early childhood education start with one year olds and fund school readiness programs
• develop a state retirement system for low-wage workers (a study will have results in January), and
• bring the private sector into the public policy dialogue.
Angie Miller of Community Action Duluth told Pappas funding to the Minnesota Family Investment Program, the state’s welfare reform program for low-income families with children, hasn’t increased since 1986, and needs to be. A single adult with two children gets $532 a month plus food support but no one can be expected to live on that.
The Duluth summit found very knowledgeable presenters, and an engaged audience with many good ideas and concerns looking for real solutions.
Lorrie Janatopolous, planning director for the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency, said a 2010 study found that 3,434 men worked in mining on the Iron Range, but only 290 women, and that included office staff. When the Two Harbors School District started a girls only industrial technology class it doubled the number of girls going into the advanced class.
“We need to work with community colleges and schools to train women in non-traditional jobs,” Janatopolous said. County government needs to write education plans as well she said.
Others stated that having the term “non-traditional jobs” used for women workers speaks to how little progress has been made.
Child care and home health care workers spoke of the difficulty of their low wage jobs and of organizing, sometimes with unions, to improve their lot. Victories will be achieved through the political process and changing public policy many said.
Anne Johnson, executive director of Generation Progress, said there are now 95 million millenials (those born between 1980 and 2,000) in the U.S. and by 2020 they will be 40% of U.S. voters. They have a very different concept of what they expect of work and jobs.
Duluth City Councilor Emily Larson in her greeting said, “We are the people who have been waiting to push this agenda forward.”
Mayor Don Ness in his welcome said he was excited that Duluth was chosen for this Minnesota conversation, the first in the nation. He spoke of the city council passing a resolution supporting the Women's Economic Security Act. And he thanked them on behalf of a third grade girl at Myers-Wilkin Elementary in Duluth, his daughter, Eleanor, and her generation, who will be the ones to benefit from the Women and Families Economic Security Summit.