2014 Changemaker: Women’s Economic Security Act

WESA – the Women’s Economic Security Act – was still generating excitement months after Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed it into law in May.

In August, state Sen. Sandy Pappas, chief Senate author, addressed the national AFL-CIO Workers’ Voice conference in Minneapolis, highlighting Minnesota’s groundbreaking legislation. In September, she was invited to speak about Minnesota’s accomplishment to feminists from across the country who gathered in Washington, D.C., to rally for the ERA.

“There’s a lot of interest around the country,” says Pappas, DFL-St. Paul.

Major WESA components included:
• Expanding unpaid leave under the Minnesota Parental Leave Act from six to 12 weeks; allowing use of leave for pregnancy-related needs.
• Reducing the pay gap through increased enforcement of equal-pay laws for state contractors and by allowing employees to discuss pay inequities.
• Supporting development of women-owned businesses in nontraditional industries.
• Requiring equal employment treatment whether you’re a parent, single or any other family status.
• Studying how to offer a retirement savings plan for workers without access to an employer-provided plan.

“This is a big deal,” says Erin Parrish, formerly executive director of the Minnesota Women’s Consortium in St. Paul. “Women and families have gone too long without the workplace protections they need to be economically secure.”

Founding members of a coalition to seek passage of the historic legislation were the Minn. Women’s Consortium; WomenVenture; Women’s Foundation of Minn.; Center on Women and Public Policy at the University of Minn.’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs; Gender Justice and AARP Minn.

“We had all the bases covered,” Parrish says – including a business perspective, legal expertise and a research/data focus. Soon, faith-based, labor and other groups were brought in. “It was really organic how it came together.”

What stands out for AARP Minnesota’s Mary Jo George was WESA’s intergenerational perspective.

“Family caregiving is becoming the ‘new normal,'” she says, “but the workplace hasn’t kept up.” As a result, according to George, associate state director of AARP Minnesota, approximately one in five women age 50 and over leaves the workforce early to care for an aging parent – often taking a huge retirement income hit from forgoing their highest-earning working years.

Prohibiting workplace discrimination against such caregivers was among the WESA components that didn’t make it through this time. However, George calls the new ban on discrimination against those caring for children a “good first step.”

Coalition members have been meeting to lay the groundwork for the 2015 legislative session, which begins Jan. 6. Both unfinished business (such as paid sick leave and child care assistance funding) and new business are on the table.

“A new issue we’re pursuing is paid parental leave,” Pappas says. “You see it popping up all over the country and even in Minnesota,” where the faculty union negotiated paid leave with state colleges. The city of St. Paul will offer the benefit, too. (As noted above, unpaid parenting leave was expanded under WESA.)

In the meantime, Pappas cites a concrete example of WESA’s impact at her own workplace – the state Capitol, currently undergoing major renovation. When they learned no lactation room would be available during the construction, women Senators pointed to the newly enacted requirement that employers make reasonable efforts to give mothers a private space to express breast milk.

“We have several staff members who are nursing moms,” notes Pappas. The lactation room materialized.

After all, it’s the law.

• Visit the WESA website for information about the legislation, coalition members and ways to take action: www.mnwesa.org
• Contact your state legislators. If you aren’t sure who represents you, find out here: www.leg.state.mn.us/leg/districtfinder.aspx