House passes bill to address gender gap

Published 10:19 am Thursday, April 10, 2014

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota House passed a bill Wednesday that aims to narrow the pay gap between men and women, expand access to affordable child care and increase unpaid parental leave from six weeks to 12 weeks.

“This is an exciting day and a long overdue day,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said at a news conference on the Capitol steps hours before the House passed the bill in a broadly bipartisan vote, 106-24.

Minority Leader Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, voted against the proposal.

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Data from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota show that the median full-time annual earnings of a woman in the state is about $10,000 less than a man’s. That nonprofit organization works for gender equality in partnership with the University of Minnesota Humphrey School’s Center on Women & Public Policy.

The House measure reflects a national conversation about equal pay for equal work and employment policies regarding working families.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order on Tuesday protecting workers from retaliation for speaking out about unequal compensation.

Melin said during the House discussion, which women dominated, that the bill allows Minnesota employees the same security.

Proposals such as those the Minnesota House approved on Wednesday are in the interests of men as well as women, Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., said by phone.

“Our society is no longer in a situation where most families can afford a stay-at-home mom,” Coontz said. “We’re dead last in the industrial world for family-friendly work policies. It’s very important that we build a situation where women don’t have to give up jobs if they become pregnant and have a baby. Those jobs must be protected, and there must be available affordable childcare.”

Republicans criticized the proposal for the unintended costs it could create.

Reps. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, and Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, pressed Melin during the debate about how the bill defined “caregiver.” They wondered whether someone who took care of another person, even if not related to the other person, would be considered a “caregiver” under the bill’s language.

Melin said no, but Peppin said the ambiguity could lead to lawsuit expenses for those unable to afford them. Peppin referred to a claim by the Minnesota chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, a conservative lobbying group, that such suits could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Several GOP members objected to what they said was assigning comparable worth across categories of jobs.

“Equal pay for equal work is a pretty understandable concept,” said Rep. Jennifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie. “But comparable worth is a more complicated concept.”

The bill prohibits Minnesota governmental entities from entering into contracts exceeding $500,000 with businesses that employ at least 50 people unless they certify, among other things, that “the average compensation for its female employees is not consistently below the average compensation for its male employees within each of the major job categories” identified by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

That approach could put state businesses at a competitive disadvantage by forcing some industries, such as health care, to pay nurses as much as other industries, such as information technology, regardless of supply and demand, said Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester.

“That’s a clunker of way to do it,” Nelson told The Associated Press by phone. “We should be encouraging young girls to participate in activities that lead to those high-paying high-demand jobs,” like science, technology, engineering and mathematics education programs, she said.

The Senate plans to consider its version after the Legislature’s Easter and Passover break, which begins Thursday and ends April 22.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has said he supports the general thrust of the bill.