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Women’s bill: the DFL social agenda even Republicans voted for

With the Women’s Economic Security Act, the DFL finishing off a long social-legislation list that, in this case, garnered dozens of GOP votes.

The DFL began the process Wednesday of finishing off a long social-legislation list, underscoring again that elections matter. 

Rep. Carly Melin, the House
lead author

The DFL-controlled House passed the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA), intended to create more workplace fairness for women.  The Senate is expected to follow suit and the governor will almost certainly be signing a bill before the session ends.

Unlike previous social-issues battles, many Republicans ended up supporting the legislation, after initially trying to make major changes. WESA covers everything from extending family leave following the birth of a child to reducing the gender pay gap.

A quick capitulation

Though the omnibus bill did not go as far as many DFLers wanted, it hewed to the party’s social agenda, which began last session with passage of the gay marriage bill and has continued this session with passage of the anti-bullying bill and an increase in the minimum wage.

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In most of those cases, Republican legislators argued that DFLers were creating too many costly and ineffective regulations.

That was the point GOP lawmakers again made in the WESA debate’s opening moments. But they capitulated quickly, and the bill passed by a whopping 106-24 margin.

For better or worse — depending on your political philosophy — it’s safe to assume with GOP majorities, none of these social-issue bills would have seen the light of day. And obviously, for DFLers and Republicans, all of these measures will be a part of upcoming campaigns.

A magic law?

In some ways, the last piece of the social puzzle — WESA — is the most obtuse. It’s almost impossible to write a law that magically brings equity to the workplace.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, the Senate
lead author

The omnibus bill combines several seemingly smaller issues and throws them all at an equity problem that continues to exist — despite the fact that efforts to bring pay equity to the workplace have gone on for more than a half century.

In 1951, for example, the United Nations called for “equal remuneration’’ for men and women doing similar work. And in 1963, the U.S. Congress passed a law that made it illegal to pay men and women different wages for doing the same work.

The House bill is devoted only in part to the pay issue. There are other sorts of efforts made to help women in the workplace. 

It extends parenting leave from 6 to 12 weeks and requires employers with more than 40 employees to provide some accommodations for pregnant workers. There have been instances, DFL lawmakers said, in which pregnant women have been fired because they need more bathroom breaks than those who aren’t pregnant.

Compromise, or dilution

Testimony from business organizations led DFLers to dilute some of the initial bill’s language.

For example, Dan McElroy, president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota and vice president of Minnesota Restaurant, Lodging and Resorts & Campground Association, spoke of “how people listened to each other’‘ in developing the package that made it to the House floor.

He used the example of mothers with infants who need to express breast milk. In the original form, the bill’s language would have required businesses to offer women a private place with an electrical outlet.

“How can you do that if you own a Dairy Queen that has 400 square feet?’‘ McElroy asked rhetorically.

Legislators listened to the concern and added language that read “whenever possible.”

McElroy said such changes removed objections of the businesses he represents.

“On good days here (at the Capitol), people really do listen to each other,’‘ he said.

No guaranteed sick leave

This is a bill loaded with the little things.

The Humphrey Institute’s Deb Fitzpatrick, who did much of the research behind the bill, said it’s detail-oriented because big-picture law has generally failed to create equity.

“We have equal pay laws,’’ she said, “but why isn’t there equal pay?’’

This bill attempts to address some of those whys.

For instance, it’s apparently common practice for many companies to discipline — even fire — workers who talk with each other about what they are paid. This bill “allows employees to voluntarily discuss their compensation without fear of retaliation from their employers.” (A similar proposal just failed in the U.S. Senate.)

On the other hand, a basic need — taking a sick day to be home with a sick kid — was axed early in the bill’s drafting.

Research showed that very-low-paid workers are desperate for sick leave, not only for themselves but to care for their children. However, low-wage workers often work two or three jobs; none that include health care benefits, Fitzpatrick said.

DFLers and Republicans were able to agree that grandparents could use sick time they may have to stay home with a sick grandchild. 

There were other areas of concordance: more “scholarships” for pre-K programs, and for women into such male-dominated careers as engineering.

Male Republicans ‘just shut up’

This bill was dicey for Republicans to fight. It was mostly GOP women who spoke of their concerns with the DFL bill.  (Some male Republican legislators said they’d been told “to just shut up’’ by members of their caucus.)

 Was it hard to be a female legislator and be critical of a bill for women?

Rep. Peggy Scott

“Not really,’’ said Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover. “We think there are provisions in the bill that are onerous for small business. Some of those provisions could have direct impact on the 150,000 women-owned businesses in the state.’’

Still, Republicans didn’t fight this piece of social legislation with anything resembling the gusto they fought gay marriage, bullying and the minimum wage.

In part, that lack of fight probably traces to the GOP’s male-skewing gender gap at the polls. Fighting something named the Women’s Economic Security Act would be difficult politics.

But this isn’t the end of the equity issue at the capitol, House and Senate lead sponsors, Carly Melin and Sandra Pappas, vowed at a rally before the House took up the issue.

There is much more to be done, they both said. 

In policymaking, Pappas said, there are little steps and there are huge steps: “We think this is a better-than-average step.’’