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Greater Economic Equity for Women: The WESA Legacy

While the world is waking up to and pushing back in unprecedented ways against stalled progress on gender and racial equity, Minnesota is making progress and demonstrating the power of public policy.

Between 2012 and 2016, Minnesota had the largest decrease in the overall pay gap of any state in the upper Midwest. Based on 2016 census data (the most recent that we have), Minnesota is also the only state in the upper Midwest with a pay gap below the national average and is among the top five nationally for women’s median income adjusted for cost of living.

What happened between 2012 and 2016 to create greater economic equity for women in the state? One substantial development was the passage, with significant leadership from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota (WFMN), of the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA). Signed into law on Mother’s Day 2014, this package of 14 bills, the first successful broad-based legislative agenda of its kind, attacked economic disparities and the gender pay gap on multiple fronts.

On this day, Minnesota made history. This was the first time in state history that policymakers — Republicans and Democrats, alike — prioritized women’s economic security as key to the overall economic security of the state. The Act addressed the root causes that prevent our state’s women from gaining an economic foothold and securing a pathway to prosperity.

The Road to WESA

But the work leading up to this historic day began much earlier. Economics research in the 2014 Status of Women & Girls in Minnesota, commissioned by the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, served as the basis for the legislation, which took root when WFMN President & CEO Lee Roper-Batker met with House Speaker Paul Thissen, who asked how the Legislature could support women. The research served as the basis for each bill that comprised the Act, which was was introduced at the beginning of the legislative session with key interest and leadership generated by Speaker Thissen.

None of this would have been possible without the generosity and support of donor advisors and the closest supporters of the Women’s Foundation. Their support enabled WFMN to hire a lobbyist to represent our interests at the state Capitol, and her strategic counsel expertly guided the bill to full passage in the House and Senate.

It also enabled WFMN to support the work of the MN Coalition for Women’s Economic Security, a group of key nonprofits that led efforts at the Capitol. The Coalition included my Center as research Partner,  the Women’s Foundation, AARP, Minnesota Women’s Consortium, Pay Equity Coalition, WomenVenture, Gender Justice, and Office on the Economic Status of Women.

The law strengthened workplace protections and flexibility for pregnant women and nursing mothers, increased the minimum wage and funding for a new grant program within the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to increase employment opportunities for women in high-wage/high-demand occupations, and reduced the gender pay gap through increased enforcement and scope of equal pay laws.

The Impact of WESA

Through inflationary increases to Minnesota’s minimum wage, approximately 147,000 women (60% of the state’s workers earning at or below the minimum) received a raise in 2016. Through the WESA-funded Scale-Up program, Women Venture helped women-owned businesses access $4.4 million in expansion capital and create jobs paying an average of $23 per hour. While the state’s largest job training program (Pathways to Prosperity) trained most women for the service sector, the WESA-funded Women in Nontraditional Jobs program trained and placed women in construction and manufacturing. WESA improved Minnesota’s already strong equal pay protections, making it one of two states (Minnesota and Illinois, both with strong laws) in the upper Midwest to significantly decrease its gender pay gap.

The Department of Labor and Industry has responded to worker complaints and conducted 35 outreach events, helping more employers implement WESA pregnancy and leave protections. Almost 1,300 state contractors have received Equal Pay certifications and 122 are currently undergoing audits, an important form of accountability.

Work Ahead

The WESA law was a win for Minnesota women and families. Important laws are now in place that remove barriers to women’s economic security — enormous steps forward toward equity for all women and girls in the state.

The results show us that public policies can make a difference, and they also point to the need for even stronger policies and increased resources for programs that we know are working. More than 2,000 families remain on waiting lists for childcare and many more families in need don’t even qualify. The vast majority of low-income mothers don’t receive pay when they take family leaves; 25% returning to work within 2 weeks of giving birth and 80% don’t have access to a single paid sick day. The state’s minimum wage is increasing but is not a family supporting wage and women are still too often and more often stuck in those jobs.

Through the Status of Women & Girls research we continue to publish together, we aim to inspire and engage more Minnesotans to demand economic opportunity, safety, wellness, and equal leadership for all the state’s women and girls. The Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota, with its cross-sector leadership including corporations, government, communities, and young women, is WFMN’s investment to achieve equity in opportunities to ensure that all Minnesotans can live prosperous lives. Our newest report, Impacts of the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota on the State’s Labor Market, demonstrates that young women of color, and other young women whom data show are an untapped resource, are key to developing and ensuring that Minnesota has the trained and ready skilled workforce we need in the future.

Our lesson is that investing in research and putting community at the center yields policy wins for all — because we know that when women are economically secure, families and communities thrive.

By Deb Fitzpatrick, Co-Director, Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy, Humphrey School of Public Policy, University of Minnesota

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