The Times, Trenton

Opinion: Remove Workplace Obstacles For Women, Watch Everyone Thrive

The Times of Trenton — Sunday, March 16, 2014

Times of Trenton guest opinion column
By Rush Holt

In 1957, my mother, Helen Holt — who was then a widow raising three children alone on a teacher's salary — became the secretary of state of West Virginia. She was the first woman to hold a high-level office in that state, and she soon found herself face-to-face with a bureaucracy that had no idea what to make of her.

"The man who was clerk came to see me right away," she recalls now, "and said, 'Now show me how you want your signature written, because I'll sign everything for you. You don't have to bother with anything.'"

Thankfully, after decades of pioneering work by women like my mother, such outright sexism — "You don't have to bother with anything" — has become uncommon in American workplaces. (It became rare far sooner in the West Virginia secretary of state's office: "I'm used to signing my own name," my mother made clear, "and I'm not going to have my name put on anything that I don't sign.")

But more subtle, and equally pernicious, obstacles to women's economic success remain. Women earn on average 77 cents for every dollar a man makes for the exact same work, a pay gap that starts the first year out of college and continues for the rest of a woman's life. Two-thirds of all minimum-wage workers are women.

Just as important, women find themselves trapped by personnel policies established in a different world, at a time when women were expected to stay at home. Nearly half of full-time employees have no protections for paid family and medical leave, so mothers — and fathers, too — must make impossible choices. How can a retail worker choose between taking her sick child to the doctor and earning the day's pay she needs to make rent?

These issues affect women most acutely, but they are not just "women's issues." After all, our economy cannot succeed if half of the population is left behind.

So how can New Jersey and our country do better? Recently, I convened a forum at the Statehouse in Trenton to consider that question. I was joined by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a longtime champion for women's economic rights; Randi Weingarten, the outspoken president of the American Federation of Teachers; Analilia Mejia of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance; Hetty Rosenstein of the Communications Workers of America; Karen White of the Rutgers Center for Women and Work; Laurel Brennan, secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey AFL-CIO; Ann Vardeman of New Jersey Citizen Action; and other New Jersey men and women with firsthand stories of a working world that still seems out of step with their realities.

As we spoke, it became clear that any solution will start with three steps.

First, America must guarantee sick leave to all workers. Not only will this enable women to take care of themselves and their families when they are ill, but it also will protect public health by preventing sick workers from spreading their illnesses to others. Cities across New Jersey, including Newark and Jersey City, are acting to expand paid sick leave, but no protections exist statewide in New Jersey or at the national level. Right now, 44 million Americans have no paid sick days at all. We should set a national sick-day standard guaranteeing workers at least seven paid sick days each year.

Second, America must ensure that employees can take time away from work to care for their family. New Jersey was the second state in the nation to guarantee workers paid leave to care for a newborn child or for a family member with a serious health condition. Most other states, however, provide no such safety net. It's time to enact family leave protections at the federal level.

Third is increasing the minimum wage. No full-time worker, man or woman, should live in poverty, but because women are disproportionately likely to earn the minimum wage, they would disproportionately benefit from an increase. Last fall, New Jerseyans voted overwhelmingly to raise the state's minimum wage to $8.25 per hour, but we can do better. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 nationally would lift nearly 5 million people out of poverty and help ensure that every American worker earns fair pay for a hard day's work.

These ideas were amplified by President Obama in his State of the Union address in January. As he put it, "It's time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode. This year, let's all come together — Congress, the White House and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street — to give every woman the opportunity she deserves. Because I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds."

The president is right. My mother turned 100 years old last August, and in that time she has seen dramatic changes to women's role in the workplace, but too many obstacles to their success remain. America doesn't need to wait another 100 years, or even another day, to do better.

Rush Holt represents New Jersey's 12th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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