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Will the HELP Committee prime Congress to HELP WOMEN?

May 27th, 2014  |  Pamela Wolf

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

It has long been well-established that women face economic challenges rooted in workplace issues that are predominantly related to being a working woman while still juggling all the family responsibilities that typically fall more on the shoulders of women than on those of men. Could it be that Congress is getting serious about looking for ways to resolve some of those challenges and the resulting burdens that fall so heavily on women?

On Tuesday, May 21, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) Chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee pointed to both the successes of women in the American workplace and the challenges that still remain as he kicked off a hearing on the topic: “Economic Security of Working Women: A Roundtable Discussion.”

“America’s working women have made incredible strides in the workplace,” Harkin said in a statement. “And as women succeed, America succeeds and our economy succeeds. But huge challenges remain. Too many working women are stuck in poor-quality, low-wage jobs, living in or near poverty, struggling to make ends meet.”

Stubborn challenges remain. Foreshadowing comments that would be made by witnesses invited to address the committee, Harkin continued: “In addition, even as women have entered the workforce, they are still usually the primary caregivers for children and elders. Yet our workplaces have not kept up with the changing times, and most women do not have access to the supports they need to be successful workers and caregivers.”

The senator also pointed to the challenges that women face during pregnancy: “While more and more pregnant women want to, or must, work throughout their pregnancies, women who are pregnant often risk losing their jobs — despite existing legal protections — or face employers that refuse to provide the most basic accommodations.”

Commenting on the challenges faced by women workers who need to take leave from work, Harkin said: “Many working women still have no access to any caregiving leave, like maternity leave, at all, and most lack access to paid leave. Forty percent of workers are still not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). … Even women who are fortunate enough to be covered by the FMLA are often forced to return to work too soon, because they cannot afford to take the unpaid leave that the law provides.”

Senator Harkin also pointed to challenges women face when a child gets sick or a parent needs to be accompanied to the doctor, noting that 40 million Americans do not even have a single paid sick day they can use to take care of themselves or a sick family member. “Some of these workers even risk losing their jobs for missing a single day of work,” he said. “As a result, these working caregivers constantly face agonizing choices. Do you stay home with a sick child, knowing you are putting your job and your income at risk? Or do you leave a sick child unattended to ensure that you keep your job and your income?

Perhaps the greatest challenges are faced by low-wage workers, who often have “impossible schedules that threaten their family’s well-being,” according to Harkin. “Workers cannot get full-time hours, or face widely varying weekly schedules. Many receive their schedules at the last minute or are kept constantly on-call, with little to no control over their working hours. Finding reliable child care or sticking to a budget becomes impossible under these circumstances.”

How can these challenges be mitigated? The roundtable discussion addressed these and other challenges faced by women in the workforce and offered sometimes differing perspectives on how best to make workplaces more responsive to the needs of women.

A panel of eight women were invited to share their views with the HELP Committee: Neera Tanden, President, Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C.; Ellen Bravo, Executive Director, Family Values at Work, Milwaukee, Wis.; Amy Traub, Senior Policy Analyst, Demos, New York, N.Y.; Fatima Goss Graves, Vice President for Education and Employment, National Women’s Law Center, Washington, D.C.; Lori Pelletier, Executive Secretary-Treasurer, Connecticut State Federation of Labor, Rocky Hill, Conn.; Armanda Legros, Low-wage worker, Jamaica Estates, N.Y.; Gayle E. Troy, Human Resource Manager, Globe Manufacturing Company, LLC, Pittsfield, N.H.; and Rhea Lana Riner, President, Rhea Lana’s, Inc., Conway, Ark.

The recommendations by two particular panelists underscore whether the challenges faced by women should be addressed by the federal government through mandates requiring minimum protections and/or benefits, or through employer incentives instead that are aimed to create a workplace in which the needs of women would be met while at the same time the burdens placed on business operations would be minimized.

Public policy solutions. Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress, an independent, nonpartisan educational institute dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans through progressive ideas and action, suggested several public policy solutions that would likely have an immediate and positive impact in the lives of working women.

“At the federal level, mandating paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, and a more flexible workplace, and strengthening pay equity legislation could empower women to meet their full potential,” Tanden said in her written testimony. She also suggested that in light of the fact that almost two-thirds of minimum-wage workers and 70 percent of tipped minimum-wage workers are women, “making the minimum wage a living wage would help close the pay gap and lift millions of Americans out of poverty.”

According to Tanden, fostering policies that permit women “to be full participants in today’s workforce” will boost the bottom line of businesses and also ensure America’s competitiveness in the global economy. She suggested that the following policy solutions would empower women to meet their full potential:

  • Paid sick days, as proposed in the Healthy Families Act, and paid family and medical leave insurance, as proposed in the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or FAMILY Act
  • Pay equity, as proposed in the Paycheck Fairness Act
  • High-quality, affordable early childhood education and universal pre-K
  • A higher minimum wage and tipped minimum wage

Incentivizing employers. Gayle Troy, Human Resources Manager at Globe Manufacturing Company, LLC, appearing on behalf of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), focused on a solution that would be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of employees while still providing desired predictability and stability that support business operations.

“SHRM and its members believe the United States must have a 21st century workplace flexibility policy that reflects the nature of today’s workforce, and that meets the needs of both employees and employers,” Troy stated in her written testimony. “It should enable employees to navigate their work and personal needs while providing predictability and stability to employers. Most importantly, such an approach must encourage employers to offer greater flexibility, creativity and innovation to meet the needs of their employees’ families.”

Troy pointed to a set of five principles that SHRM developed in 2009 to help guide the creation of a new workplace flexibility public policy. “In essence, SHRM believes that all employers should be encouraged to provide paid leave for illness, vacation and personal days to accommodate the needs of employees and their family members,” she said. “In return for meeting a minimum eligibility requirement, employers that choose to provide paid leave would be considered to have satisfied federal, state and local requirements and would qualify for a statutorily defined ‘safe-harbor.’” The five SHRM principles are:

Shared needs: A “safe-harbor” standard where employers voluntarily provide a specified number of paid leave days for employees to use for any purpose, consistent with the employer’s policies or collective bargaining agreements (CBA). A federal policy should:

  • Provide certainty, predictability, and accountability for employees and employers.
  • Encourage employers to offer paid leave under a uniform and coordinated set of rules that would replace and simplify the confusing — and often conflicting — existing patchwork of regulations.
  • Create administrative and compliance incentives for employers that offer paid leave by offering them a safe-harbor standard that would facilitate compliance and save on administrative costs.
  • Allow for different work environments, union representation, industries, and organizational size.
  • Permit employers that voluntarily meet safe-harbor leave standards to satisfy federal, state, and local leave requirements.

Employee leave: Employers should be encouraged to voluntarily provide paid leave to help employees meet work and personal life obligations through the safe-harbor leave standard. A federal policy should:

  • Encourage employers to offer employees some level of paid leave that meets minimum eligibility requirements as allowed under the employer’s safe-harbor plan.
  • Allow the employee to use the leave for illness, vacation, personal, and family needs.
  • Require employers to create a plan document, made available to all eligible employees, that fulfills the requirements of the safe harbor.
  • Require the employer to attest to the DOL that the plan meets the safe-harbor requirements.

Flexibility: A federal workplace leave policy should encourage maximum flexibility for both employees and employers; it should:

  • Permit the leave requirement to be satisfied by following the policies and parameters of an employer plan or CBA, where applicable, consistent with the safe-harbor provisions.
  • Provide employers with predictability and stability in workforce operations.
  • Provide employees with the predictability and stability necessary to meet personal needs.

Scalability: A federal workplace leave policy must avoid a mandated one-size-fits-all approach and instead recognize that paid leave offerings should accommodate the increasing diversity in workforce needs and environments; it should:

  • Allow leave benefits to be scaled to the number of employees at an organization; the organization’s type of operations; talent and staffing availability; market and competitive forces; and collective bargaining arrangements.
  • Provide pro-rated leave benefits to full- and part-time employees as applicable under the employer plan, which is tailored to the specific workforce needs and consistent with the safe harbor.

Flexible work options: Employees and employers can benefit from a public policy that meets the diverse needs of the workplace in supporting and encouraging flexible work options such as telecommuting, flexible work arrangements, job sharing, and compressed or reduced schedules. Federal statutes that impede these offerings should be updated to provide employers and employees with maximum flexibility to navigate work and personal needs. A federal policy should:

  • Amend federal law to allow employees to manage work and family needs through flexible work options such as telecommuting, comp time, flextime, a part-time schedule, job sharing, and compressed or reduced schedules.
  • Permit employees to choose either earning compensatory time off for work hours beyond the established workweek, or overtime wages. 
  • Clarify federal law to strengthen existing leave statutes to ensure they work for both employees and employers.

The next step in the quest to help women experience greater economic success remains to be seen. For his part, however, Harkin had this to say: “We know from successful policies in cities and states around the country that it is possible to implement stronger measures to help working women succeed. Raising the minimum wage, allowing women to earn paid sick days and paid family and medical leave, ensuring equal pay, requiring accommodations for pregnant workers, and allowing workers to have input into their work schedules — these are winning policies for everyone. Families benefit. Businesses will benefit from a more loyal and healthier workforce. And our economy benefits when women workers have steady employment and a steady paycheck.”

Perhaps the HELP Committee, as a result of the hearing, will prompt Congress to take much-need action to give working women more help in the workplace — even a little help, regardless of the approach, will likely go a long way.