Legislation at the federal level designed to improve women’s economic opportunities appears stalled, including, most recently, the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. But some states are taking matters into their own hands and working on similar laws in their legislatures. They could serve as models for what needs to be done at the federal level.
On Tuesday, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) signed an equal pay bill into law. The new law will require employers to prove they have legitimate business reasons for paying workers unequal wages, protect workers who discuss pay with each other, provide protections for employees who request flexible work arrangements, give mothers who need to express breast milk at work protection, and improve the process that ensures state government contracts pay equal wages. It also establishes a study committee to look at instituting a paid family leave law.
New York may soon follow in Vermont’s footsteps. In his 2013 State of the State address, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced a Women’s Equality Agenda that is currently winding its way through the state legislature, and many of the provisions relate to women’s economic opportunities.
One would amend state law to make it explicit that pregnant workers are entitled to reasonable accommodations related to pregnancy and childbirth unless they would create a hardship for the employer. Women are often pushed out of their jobs or fired when they request accommodations like a stool, the ability to drink water on the job, or be given light lifting duties. On a recent conference call about the proposal, Dina Bakst, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, recounted the stories of New York women who experienced these responses, including a worker who was pushed out of her job at 17 weeks pregnant because her employer refused to modify a lifting requirement. She ended up in a homeless shelter thanks to the loss of income.
Another provision would prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who share wage information with each other and redefine what exceptions employers can cite for pay differentials so that they can only relate to job performance or business necessity. Yet another would amend New York State’s human rights law to provide explicit protections for workers who have children.
New York goes even further, though, by taking an intersectional approach to women’s equality. While statehouses across the country continue to consider a record number of bills that seek to limit women’s reproductive access, New York’s bill is the only current one that would expand it. The state’s existing laws regulate abortion in the criminal code and only allows for abortion care later in a pregnancy when a women’s life is at risk, not when her health is at risk. If the national precedent of Roe v. Wade were to be struck down, abortion care could be hampered, so the agenda seeks fixes to clarify women’s rights.
While it may seem unrelated to women’s economic opportunities, access to abortion care plays a big financial role in women’s lives. Women who aren’t able to get an abortion when they seek to terminate a pregnancy are three times more likely to fall below the poverty line within two years. Controlling fertility allows women to hold jobs and invest in their education.
New York and Vermont are following other state-level successes for equal pay laws. Texas passed its own Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to reform the constitution to allow workers more time to file a charge of discriminatory pay. New Mexico passed the Fair Pay For Women Act this year, which also eases the ability to bring cases alleging pay discrimination.
These bills are popular with both the general public as well as the business community. In New York, 84 percent want to enact equal pay legislation and 80 percent want to update the state’s abortion laws. The state’s chamber of commerce has also come out in support. Federal lawmakers may want to take note of the success of these efforts at the state level.