Our View: A victory for women, equality, children
A generation after becoming the first state to enact a gender pay equity requirement for public-sector employees, Minnesota is at the forefront again by passing the Women's Economic Security Act.
Like any pioneering legislation, the "comparable worth" law was controversial when it passed in 1984. It required all cities, counties, school districts and other government entities to participate in comparable-worth assessments and to make adjustments if gender pay differences were discovered. As a safeguard against biases drifting back into salary scales, local governments are required to file a report every three years with the state.
The system has worked well. In 2013, 64 percent of the 484 local governments initially were found to be compliant. But by the end of the year, 99 percent had reached compliance by addressing gender pay inequities, according to a January 2014 report released by the Minnesota Management and Budget Office.
The Women's Economic Security Act — which, fittingly, Gov. Mark Dayton signed on Mother's Day — is devoted just in part to the pay issue. It includes other important provisions to help women in the workplace, such as extending unpaid pregnancy and parenting leave from six to 12 weeks, granting sick leave to care for sick grandchildren and requiring private space, other than restrooms, for nursing mothers to breast-feed.
Among other stipulations, it requires businesses with more than 40 employees and state contracts of more than $500,000 to certify that they pay men and women equal salaries for similar jobs. It also forbids employers from discriminating against pregnant women and parents with young children at home.
Minnesota has one of the highest female workforce participation rates in the country, with 65 percent of all women employed. In Minnesota, women earn about 80 cents for every dollar men make. Nationally, that average is 77 cents.
Sen. Sandy Pappas, a DFLer from St. Paul who was raised by a single mother, carried the bill in the Senate. Pappas pointed out several times throughout the session that in a state where women make up half the workforce but are two-thirds of its minimum-wage workers, government should be helping women find and keep good-paying jobs. Ultimately, the Senate passed its version of the bill 43-24 with four Republicans, including Sen. Dave Senjem of Rochester, Sen. Carla Nelson of Rochester and Sen. Jeremy Miller of Winona, voting with the Democratic majority.
Rep. Carly Melin, a DFLer from Hibbing, was the bill's chief sponsor in the House. Expecting her first child, Melin said her pregnancy "really opened my eyes to the problems in the workplace facing women." The House version passed 104-24 with bipartisan support, as Rep. Duane Quam of Byron and Rep. Tim Kelly of Red Wing joined the DFL majority, while Rep. Mike Benson of Rochester and Rep. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa voted against it.
Opponents of the law contend it will encourage baseless lawsuits and wrongly assumes that women need extra assistance in the workplace.
But we'd argue that as long as a business stays within pay guidelines set by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it has little to fear. The fact that women, on average, are paid 80 percent of what men earn is sufficient evidence they do need a helping hand.
Will the sweep of Dayton's pen end gender discrimination in the workplace? No, but it's another big step in the right direction.