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Debra L. Ness, President

From the desk of ... Debra L. Ness

Progress, Promise and Peril: The Imperative to Continue Workplace Policy Gains in 2017

Co-author(s): Vicki Shabo
January 9, 2017 | Workplace Fairness | Work and Family

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post

2016 was a historic year for adoption of some critically important policies and practices that improve the quality of jobs and, with them, economic security for workers and their families. Companies of all sizes stepped up at an impressive rate to implement or expand fair pay and paid leave protections, and the year brought unprecedented advances at the local, state and federal levels to promote fair pay, prohibit discrimination against pregnant employees, allow workers to earn paid sick days, and provide paid family and/or medical leave. Those advances bring slow but certain progress toward closing the gender wage gap that punishes women, and especially women of color, and beginning to ameliorate the estimated $21 billion families lose when they need time off for family and medical needs.

New York state adopted the nation’s fourth paid family and medical leave law; it will be the nation’s strongest law providing wage and job protection to working parents and family caregivers. Three new statewide paid sick days laws were enacted, giving workers the right to earn paid sick time they can use to recover from the flu, take a child or parent to see a doctor, or address consequences of domestic violence. When they take effect, nearly 40 jurisdictions covering seven states and more than half of our 10 most populous cities will guarantee workers the right to earn paid sick time. A new federal rule will also ultimately guarantee paid sick time to more than a million people who work on federal contracts.

It is noteworthy that progress on these issues is no longer concentrated only in deep blue states. In 2016, nearly 60 percent of Arizona voters approved a statewide paid sick days law (at the same time they re-elected John McCain and helped elect Donald Trump). And lawmakers in jurisdictions in Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina and Texas put paid parental or family leave policies in place for municipal workers. These advances confirm the growing consensus that these protections are important and have widespread benefits.

It’s also notable that some of 2016’s most innovative new laws offer real hope for helping solve intractable problems that have long limited women’s advancement. The new Massachusetts fair pay law, for instance, limits the salary histories prospective employers can collect from job applicants, which has long perpetuated pay disparities and disadvantaged women’s wages over their careers. And a paid family and medical leave plan passed by lawmakers in the District of Columbia will create an entirely new insurance program from scratch; when it takes effect, it will be the country’s first such law in a jurisdiction without an existing temporary disability insurance framework.

2016 also saw welcome shifts in business practices by a growing number of employers. Dozens of private companies - both large and small, and across sectors - adopted family friendly workplace policies, often with great pride and fanfare. From Deloitte to Chobani to Levi Strauss & Co., companies enhanced the momentum for workplace policies that support families, businesses and bottom lines. There may be other benefits, too; a bipartisan election eve/election night survey found that voters overwhelmingly say they are more willing to patronize companies that provide paid family and medical leave than companies that do not.

In 2016, we saw the kind of progress that, just a few years ago, those of us who pioneered these workplace protections could only dream about. Credit belongs to ever-more-savvy advocates working with federal, state and local lawmakers to give everyone fair pay and a fair shot, to the forward-thinking business leaders who are adopting family friendly policies, and to champions in the Obama administration who have long recognized that fair and family friendly workplaces are the foundation of a strong economy.

This kind of accelerated, incremental progress offers enormous promise: It creates models that work, generates evidence that workplaces that reject discrimination and help people manage the dual demands of job and family are strong and productive, and points to a better way for workers and businesses alike.

In a normal political climate, the country would be poised for federal advances, including passage by Congress of the Healthy Families Act, to put a national paid sick days standard in place; the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, to give all workers access to some wage replacement when they need to take family or medical leave; and the Paycheck Fairness and Pregnant Workers Fairness Acts, to strengthen protections against pay and pregnancy discrimination. Congressional action is essential if these protections are to reach those who need them most - especially low-wage workers and those in states that have not prioritized these policies.

But this isn’t a normal political climate, and therein lies the peril. The nation is poised for progress, but it will only come if lawmakers recognize that strengthening our economy will require paying as much attention to the kinds of jobs that are available as they pay to creating or keeping jobs in the United States. Jobs that pay women less than men for comparable work - that discriminate against pregnant employees - that allow only higher-wage workers to earn paid sick time - and that provide no wage replacement when illness strikes, babies are born and family members need care - undermine our collective goals.

Despite the progress we saw in 2016, there is a tremendous amount of work still to do. Workers and their families will suffer terribly if a divisive climate stops our progress in its tracks.

Our opportunity - and challenge - as 2017 begins is to ensure that lawmakers, from both parties and at all levels, understand the urgent imperative to build on 2016’s promise. We must continue demonstrating the value of tested solutions that will strengthen our greatest asset - our workforce - if we are to build a strong economy that works for us all.


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