‘We made history’: 2014 legislative session = big wins for women

Erin Parrish hadn’t seen a legislative session like this in her nine years with the Minnesota Women’s Consortium (MWC). “We made history,” she said. “No other state has done it.”

By “it,” she means passing a multifaceted omnibus bill like the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA). According to Parrish, just one other place has tried – New York City.

“[New York] tried an all-or-nothing approach,” Parrish said, where the package of provisions would pass or fail as one. Controversy over a reproductive-rights component sank that effort.

No such fate awaited WESA, thanks to a unique strategy, advance planning, persuasive data and a large, broad-based coalition.

In October 2013, WomenVenture, MWC and other founding coalition members connected with House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, and bill authors. They held a Women’s Economic Security Summit in January that drew 250 attendees during “the worst snowstorm of the year,” recalled Parrish with a laugh.

The coalition grew quickly from there, to almost 50 organizations. When the legislative session began on Feb. 25, they were ready.

Instead of all-or-nothing, the coalition and legislative leaders took an unusual “both-and” approach. In the session’s first week, the omnibus WESA bill was introduced by chief authors Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, and Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. Simultaneously, all of its components were introduced as separate bills.

Some of the bills developed “legs” and traveled on their own. For example, a bill providing protections for tenants experiencing domestic abuse or sexual violence was enacted separately.

Most other WESA components passed as part of the omnibus bill, including:
• 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 regardless of “familial status.”
• Studying how to offer a retirement savings plan for workers without access to one provided by their employer.

The proposals were backed by data from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and its “Status of Women & Girls in Minnesota” reports. “All of that data was really hard to argue with,” Parrish said.


Still, arguments arose.

“I felt [some representatives of] the business community wanted it both ways,” Pappas said. They spoke supportively of women in the workplace, but were reluctant to take concrete steps, she said.

And in a remark that went viral, Rep. Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury, objected to a paid-leave requirement, saying, “We are losing the respect that we so dearly want in the workplace by bringing up all of these special bills for women and almost making us look like whiners.”

The comment didn’t surprise Parrish. She understands the perspective that asking for help makes women seem like victims, she said, “but I see the ability to ask for what we need as empowering.”

What surprised her more was an initial sentiment at the State Capitol that “these problems have been solved,” Parrish said. “But as we shared the data and as women came to testify [in committee hearings], it shifted to a feeling of ‘I can’t believe this is still happening.’ “

“There was a lot of excitement among young women in particular,” Pappas said. “[They would say,] ‘You won’t believe what happened to me in this day and age’ ” – for example, not being accommodated when they were pregnant or lacking any place at work where they could express breast milk.

More excitement awaited near the session’s conclusion – and not in a good way. On the Senate floor, a motion was made to reject the omnibus bill and send it back to conference committee.

The motion failed – by one vote.

“It was heart-stopping,” Parrish said.

The final WESA omnibus bill passed the Senate 43-24 and the House 104-24, and then it was sent to Gov. Mark Dayton for signing.

Unfinished business

Not everything made it through, however. Asked about important pieces that fell by the wayside, the first provision that both Parrish and Pappas cited was earned sick and safe leave for all businesses.

“It’s a public health concern that people are forced to come to work sick in restaurants because they have no choice – they need the money,” Pappas said.

Both also cited paid parental leave and eliminating the waiting list for Basic Sliding Fee child care assistance as a big piece of unfinished business.

“The caregiving pieces in general didn’t move this year,” Parrish said. “But they’re really important for keeping people in the workforce.”

Amid planning for 2015, there’s time to enjoy this year’s victories – and to share the lessons. WESA coalition members have fielded inquiries from national organizations.

“They want to know how we did it,” Parrish said.

About WESA
What: A wide-ranging collection of new laws aimed at improving women’s economic security.
Who: Founding coalition members were the Minnesota Women’s Consortium, WomenVenture, Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, Center on Women and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and AARP Minnesota. Others of the more than 40 groups that were part of the coalition included TakeAction Minnesota, Pay Equity Coalition of Minnesota, AFSCME Council 5, AFL-CIO of Minnesota, NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota, Tubman and the Minnesota Women’s Press.
Chief authors: Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, and Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul.
Fun fact: Gov. Mark Dayton signed WESA into law on Sunday, May 11 – Mother’s Day.
FFI: www.mnwesa.org