The gender wage gap has multiple causes and manifestations, and no single policy change will solve it. We also are not going to overcome it by waiting for “cultural change” or simply encouraging employers to adopt more women- and family-friendly policies. Just as women didn’t get the right to vote or participate in school sports without changes in the law, we will not get closer to wage fairness and equal opportunity in the workplace without new action in the political arena.
Paycheck transparency and career opportunity legislation – like the Equal Pay and Opportunities Act (House Bill 1646) that passed Washington’s House but was killed off in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee last week – is an important part of changing the system so it is not stacked against women.
Here, I’m going to focus on three additional policies that if passed would boost women’s incomes, strengthen attachment to the workforce, and improve economic security long term: paid sick leave, paid family and medical leave, and updating Social Security.
These 3 issues are areas where our votes this fall will make a big difference.
Paid Sick Days:
Work-related benefits make a big difference in both immediate and long term economic security for women and their families. Women who have paid sick leave and paid family leave, are better able to stay in their jobs, have more opportunity to advance in responsibility and pay, and fewer earning gaps. They are better able to acquire assets and achieve financial resiliency, and the have more income in retirement.
Everyone gets sick or needs to go to the doctor from time to time. But 4 in 10 workers get no sick leave – except in the more than 20 cities (including Seattle, Tacoma, SeaTac, and Spokane)and 5 states (California, Oregon, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont) with Paid Sick Days standards in place.
Here are some facts:
- Workers in food service, personal service, and retail are especially unlikely to have sick leave. Even many in health care have no sick leave or are discouraged from using the leave they have.
- The lower the wage, the less likely someone is to get sick leave.
- Sick leave is a women’s issue – women are still primarily responsible for caring for sick kids and elderly parents. Part-time workers – disproportionately women – are frequently excluded from benefits offered to full-time workers.
- It’s also a children’s issue – sick kids can’t learn, they recover faster when a parent is taking care of them, and parents without paid leave struggle to schedule doctor visits for their kids. Older kids are also too often pulled out of school to care for their sick younger siblings.
- We know from multiple studies that workers with sick leave are healthier, more productive, have higher morale, suffer fewer workplace accidents, and stay on the job longer. That means sick leave is good for business, too.
How close are we to achieving paid sick leave statewide? We are hoping for victory this November. In the past two years, Washington’s House has passed a paid sick leave bill twice, but it was blocked in the Senate both times. This November, voters statewide will have the opportunity to decide. Paid sick leave is included in Initiative 1433, Raise Up Washington, which is now collecting signatures to qualify for the November 2016 ballot. I-1433 will:
- increase the state minimum wage in 4 steps to $13.50 in 2020; and
- allow all workers to earn at least 1 hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked, to use to care for their own health needs, their family’s health, and for safe leave to deal with the consequences of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.
If you’d like to help out, visit raiseupwa.com.
Paid Family and Medical Leave
In addition to sick leave for routine health needs, most people need longer leaves from work a handful of times in their career – when they welcome a new baby, a loved one gets cancer, or they are in a serious accident. That’s what family and medical leave insurance is for.
We can pass this in Washington in 2017 – if we demand that the people we elect to our state legislature in November commit to prioritizing it next year.
You’ve heard that US one of only two countries in world without paid maternity leave. We’re also facing a crisis in elder care. There are 44 million unpaid eldercare givers in the US, the majority of them women. Many of them are also in the paid workforce and are raising young children at the same time.
The good news is that several states in the US already have programs in place that provide all workers with income during extended leaves from work for a new child, serious family illness, own serious health condition.
- In these states, women more likely to be in the workforce one year after childbirth, and with higher pay, than in the states without. They are also less likely go on public assistance.
- New moms and babies in states with these programs are healthier, and moms are able to breastfeed longer, which has lifelong health benefits for the child.
- New dads also take more paternity leave and stay more engaged with their child long term as a result.
The Washington Work & Family Coalition has developed a proposal modeled after these successful programs in other states. Our plan would provide workers with up to 12 weeks leave for their own serious health condition, and up to 12 weeks for family leave, including birth or adoption and caring for a seriously ill family member. They would receive 2/3 their usual pay while on leave (up to a $1,000 per week cap), financed through payroll premiums. Employers and employees would each pay 0.2% of pay into the system, which would be a little under $2 per week for someone earning $50,000 annually.
Our bill passed out of the House Labor Committee, but House leadership didn’t want it to go further, and Senate refused to even hold a hearing.
It’s great that some high profile local employers have been stepping up and offering their employees more paid parental leave – but every child deserves strong start in life, no matter where their parent works, and every senior deserves the dignity of loving family around them during their last weeks of life.
We’re going to have to really step up the pressure to make that happen. Every candidate for the state legislature and Governor needs to be hearing about this issue.
You can help. Take every opportunity to ask candidates: will you support a paid family and medical leave program for every worker in Washington, funded by payroll premiums?
And please sign up to receive Washington Work & Family Coalition action alerts.
Social Security is an issue that people running for Congress need to hear about.
Let me start by emphasizing that Social Security finances are basically sound, despite all the misleading rhetoric we hear. Scrapping the cap on payroll premiums, so that the well-to-do pay at the same rate as everybody else, would provide both long term stability and the resources to solve real problems today.
Now, senior women are far more likely to live in poverty than men. This is especially true for widows and women of color. We should act now to raise benefits for those with lowest lifetime earnings, and for surviving spouses. This would help many older women – and men – who are living on the edge today.
We could also tweak the benefit formula to not penalize family caregiving, and restore survivor benefits for children of deceased workers through college, rather than only through high school.
Social Security has been under attack for so long, that people in Washington, DC tend to be beaten down. They are more inclined to play defense than offense, so they need to hear a positive message from you. Check out Social Security Works Washington for more information.
The good news for women is that we have policies we know will work to boost women’s incomes and family economic security. You can help create the political will to make the changes we need to move much closer to equality. This coming election season, the contrast between candidates for state and federal offices will be stark. Everything you do to communicate your concerns and priorities to candidates, and to help educate other voters about the stakes, will make a big difference.
(These comments were originally delivered at the Seattle League of Women Voters March forum on 3/3/16. They have been lightly edited for publication purposes.)