By Don Davis
The fight to close Minnesota’s gender pay gap passed a major hurdle Wednesday when the state House passed the Women’s Economic Security Act.
Supporters said the bill that passed 106-24 would advance their cause by requiring many businesses dealing with the state to pay women and men equally and better accommodate pregnant women and new mothers.
“Please, let’s show all women and the nation that it does not have to be an economic disadvantage to be born a woman,” Danielle Hans of Minneapolis told a Capitol rally before House debate began.
The bill’s chief author, Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, laid out her reason for pushing the bill in one sentence: “Women on average earn 80 cents to the dollar that men earn and in greater Minnesota women earn even less.”
She said many businesses already treat women fairly.
“Their business model will not change; they are the model,” Melin said. “But for the others, we must take it upon ourselves to address the pay gap in Minnesota. It is long overdue.”
Melin’s bill, and a similar measure that has not reached the full Senate, would force agencies to require a company doing business with the state to pay men and women equally if the company has a state contract for at least $500,000 and employs at least 50.
Some of the pay gap between men and women, Melin said, comes from factors such as discriminating against pregnant women and nursing mothers.
The bill would require businesses to give pregnant women accommodations, such as more frequent restroom breaks. It also would force employers to allow mothers to nurse and express breast milk on the job.
Parental leave would increase from six to 12 weeks, a grant program would be established to recruit and train women for some jobs, families of children could not be discriminated against and affordable child care would be expanded.
The bill also would prohibit employers from enacting rules to stop employees from discussing how much they are paid.
The provision follows testimony in legislative committees from women who said they found out they were paid less than male counterparts after the males said how much they received. Testimony showed that several businesses ban wage discussions.
Republicans said the Melin bill would cost businesses too much money.
Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, said that in her area women are doing well.
“Gosh darn, you need to move up to northwest Minnesota,” Kiel said. “We have jobs and we’ve got pay.”
But Melin said women often are not treated fairly.
“Mothers shouldn’t have to choose between working and the ability to nurse their child,” she said.