In time to celebrate International Women’s Day, the Legislature is tackling a range of issues central to opportunity and economic security for Washington women, including pay discrimination, childcare, long term care, and restoring rights to previously incarcerated people.
These policies still have to go through several more hoops to become state law, but in the past two weeks, they’ve made it past a series of deadlines that have killed hundreds of other bills.
The House and the Senate have each passed several bills to broaden access to affordable childcare and early learning. Among them is a bill to allow lower-income community and technical college students to receive childcare subsidies without having to meet onerous work requirements. Another, called Childcare Action Now, directs a task force to develop recommendations to achieve quality, affordable childcare options for all communities by 2025. This comprehensive approach also addresses professional compensation for childcare workers themselves, who are overwhelmingly female.
The strong bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate for childcare improvements reflect legislators’ recognition of both the importance of early learning in young children’s development and the crisis many families are facing. Today childcare can cost more than college tuition, yet childcare teachers make little more than minimum wage and centers struggle to make ends meet. Lots more public funding has to be part of the long term solution. Unfortunately, with our state’s inefficient tax system letting millionaires and high-profit corporations get away with minimal contributions to the public good, don’t expect much of an infusion of public funding for childcare.
The House has also passed an innovative solution to the looming long term care crisis through a bill which will provide supportive services to adults who need assistance with activities of daily living. Care for older adults is particularly a women’s issue. Women are both more likely to be called on to provide care and to live into their later years. The bill also provides its own new source of funding through payroll premiums similar to Washington’s new Paid Family and Medical Leave program.
Another step toward economic security is the New Hope Act, which makes it easier for people to have convictions vacated after a period of good behavior. For too many people, a wrong turn that results in jail time can bar them from jobs, housing, and other opportunities even after they’ve done their time and turned their lives around. Wives and partners of fathers who have been incarcerated have an increased risk of poverty and homelessness that can continue well after the father has been released. The bill has passed the House unanimously, a hopeful sign that the era of mass incarceration – which has especially devastated communities of color – is coming to an end.
Still waiting in the wings at this writing is a bill which will give women and others new tools to achieve paycheck fairness by prohibiting employers from asking job candidates about previous pay. Relying on someone’s previous salary to determine pay for a new job perpetuates wage disparities. It allows a low wage early in a career can also haunt someone for the rest of their lives with lower starting pay in subsequent jobs, smaller raises, and less retirement income.
This and a similar Senate bill build on the Equal Pay and Opportunity Act signed into law last year, guaranteeing employees the right to discuss compensation with coworkers and strengthening access to equal advancement opportunities.
Unfortunately, corporate lobbyists are urging lawmakers to strip off a provision that would require employers to tell people the pay range for a position if they request it, and the Senate version of the bill has already been amended to placate them. This small piece of information can make a big difference in leveling the playing field for women of all races and men of color and help overcome the often unconscious biases that result in white men being offered higher starting salaries.
Progress this year is possible in part because voters elected a historically female and diverse group to the Legislature in 2018. Women make up 41 percent of Washington’s 2019 Legislature – a long way short of their representation in the population, but better than it’s been for two decades, and better than most states. (Just this year, Nevada became the first state ever to have more than 50 percent of its legislative seats held by women.)
But few bills pass by legislators’ actions alone. Communities across the state have also organized to make sure their voices are heard. Make sure to let your legislators know that you want to see all these policies get across the final finish line and to the Governor’s desk.
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