Sixteen thousand participants, in a post-State-of-the-Union phone conference Wednesday night, discussed a Women's Economic Agenda for the nation. With passion and the wisdom that comes from experience, working women from across the country related their experiences of trying to decide whether to pay the rent, buy food, or pay medical bills with paychecks that are 77 percent that of men; for women of color the disparity is sharper. They also spoke of needing support in fighting for their rights on the job.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Donna Edwards, D-Md., opened the discussion on behalf of women Democrats in Congress by noting that current policies do not reflect the way women and their families live their lives. They summarized proposed legislation that will benefit working women and their families.
Lilly Ledbetter, for whom the Fair Pay Act of 2009 is named, told her now famous story of how a jury awarded her pay and retirement benefits lost due to 20 years of pay inequity, only to have the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the verdict, saying she should have made inquiries earlier to see she was receiving equal pay. Because of her fight, the Equal Pay Act, known as the Lilly Ledbetter Act, was passed in 2009, but it did not overturn the court's decision.
More is needed, the women said. Even though the Equal Pay Act is supposed to assure equal pay for equal work it is often not enforced, and women who demand enforcement risk being fired, demoted or passed over for promotions.
Participants said that, though they aware that the Family and Medical Leave Act allows them to take 12 weeks of unpaid sick leave or unpaid leave to care for ill or injured children, they often face financial disaster if they take unpaid time off. One woman pointed out that only the U.S. and one other country, Papua New Guinea, do not provide paid maternity leave.
Child care is a huge financial burden for most families, the cost often equaling one parent's pay. One woman spoke of finding enough in grant money to pay for books and college tuition, then taking out a loan of $30,000 to pay for day care for her child while she finished her college degree. Another woman, noting that not all day care facilities are safe, told of her husband finding his son lethargic at the end of the day at day care. At home he was found to have a high fever. Emergency room personnel diagnosed him with pneumonia and hospitalized him.
The stories women told of trying to provide for their families, make sure their children were in affordable, safe, reliable, nurturing day care centers that will set them on a course to eventually be successful students, while frequently caring for two generations - their children, and aging parents - were compelling. Their stories showed the need for policies that address the issues working families face. President Obama's State of the Union speech was quoted: "It's time to do away with ... policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode."
To rectify the situation and make life bearable for women and working families, the Women's Economic Agenda includes the following proposed legislation:
* Amending the Family and Medical Leave Act to include mandatory paid leave for childbirth, child-rearing and caring for a sick or injured relative.
* Passing the Child Care Access and Refundability Expansion Act, HR 3740, introduced by Rep. Donna Edwards, which would make critical changes in tax law regarding deductions for child care costs.
* Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would end secrecy regarding individual employees' pay and require that employers prove that pay is not gender-based.
* Improving the Family and Medical Leave Act so that all workers earn paid sick leave. A plan, to be administered by Social Security, to provide partial income protection for 12 weeks through paycheck deductions (about $1.50 per paycheck) has been introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
The campaign is titled: "When Women Succeed, America Succeeds: An Economic Agenda for Women and Working Families."
Conference participants were urged to contact lawmakers and urge them to support the Women's Economic Agenda, and, further, to "organize, organize, organize" others in their communities, workplaces and social groups to take action.
Photo: Women organizing: Steelworkers Local 3657 Women of Steel attend the One Billion Rising rally in Pittsburgh, Pa., Feb. 14, 2013. United Steelworkers