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What’s at Stake for Women Workers in Wisconsin and Beyond

by Jennifer Clark

Protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo courtesy of CindyH Photography

The budget battles in Wisconsin, Indiana, and across the Midwestern United States have inspired a barrage of commentary about what the successful passage of the proposed state laws to strip public sector unions of their collective bargaining power would mean for public sector workers (not good), black workers (really not good), and the future of the labor movement (really, really not good). Another group with a significant stake in the outcome of these debates over public sector union bargaining power is women.

First, let’s review a few facts about women and labor unions in general. Although unionized women earn more than non-unionized women on average and have access to more benefits, such as paid leave and health insurance, public sector employees are actually paid less than their private sector counterparts, once their qualifications are taken into account. An IWPR report on job retention and low-income mothers found that union membership contributed to keeping moms on the job. In 2010, across race and ethnic groups, male union membership is lowest for Asian men, but Asian women have the highest membership rate of all groups of unionized women.  Black men have the highest union membership, but black women are also more likely than white women to be unionized.  Hispanic women have the lowest rate of union membership compared to other groups of women.

Although male workers are still the majority of union membership, the gap between unionized men and women over the last 25 years has narrowed considerably, with women representing the majority of new workers organized during that time. (For more on women and unions, visit IWPR’s Women in Unions initiative page.)

(Click to enlarge)

Public sector unions like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the American Federation of Teachers, however, have a majority female membership (52 percent and 60 percent, respectively), which makes the legislative outcome of public sector union bargaining power of particular interest to women workers. Furthermore, as you can see in the figure at left, women are 52 percent of the state public sector workforce and a whopping 61 percent of public workers at the local level (Figure 1).

If we focus on public sector employees at the local level, it becomes clear that women and their families will receive the brunt of the effects of these anti-union bills floating around state capitols in the Midwest. The most common occupation for local public sector women workers is elementary and middle school teachers (22 percent).  The most common occupation for local public sector male workers? Police and sheriff’s patrol officers, a group whose union representatives would be excluded from proposed legislation.

This isn’t to say that men won’t be impacted by any effort to strip public sector unions of their bargaining rights. At the state level, three of the five most common public sector occupations for men are in teaching fields.  Indeed, fire fighters and police unions have come out to protest in support of public sector employees–a blow to public sector union rights is a blow to all union rights.

As more women become breadwinners, women’s families will also feel the effects of any proposed legislation that affects women’s wages. In the U.S. workforce, four in ten women work in female-dominated professions. For example, elementary and middle school teachers–the occupation that is most common for local public sector women–are 81 percent female. Moreover, women earn less than men in 104 out of 108 of the occupational categories, including teaching, for which there is enough data to calculate the wage gap.

With so many women in the public sector at the state and local level, and with a proposed budget bill that would strip public sector unions—especially those representing female-dominated professions—of their bargaining rights, what is the outlook for women workers in Wisconsin and beyond?  Not good.

(This post was updated March 3, 2011)

Jennifer Clark is the Development Coordinator with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

San Francisco Paid Sick Days Law Is a Proven Success

This is a guest post by Vicki Shabo, Director of Work and Family Programs with the National Partnership for Women and Families. It was originally published on the blog for the National Partnership of Women and Families.

A new study released today shows that San Francisco’s Paid Sick Leave Ordinance (PSLO)—the first citywide paid sick days standard in the country—has been proven a success. The report, San Francisco’s Paid Sick Leave Ordinance: Outcomes for Employers and Employees, released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), includes the results of a survey of nearly 1,200 workers and more than 700 employers in San Francisco. The findings are overwhelmingly positive for workers, businesses and the public—adding further evidence that policies that help working families meet their responsibilities at work and at home are good for everyone.

Sixty-one percent of San Francisco voters approved the city’s paid sick days law in 2006 despite the business lobby’s fierce campaign against it. Under the law, workers in smaller businesses can earn up to five paid sick days per year while workers in larger businesses can earn up to nine. Workers can use the sick time to recover from their own illness, care for a sick family member, or seek routine medical care.

This new study shows what researchers, advocates and the San Francisco public knew to be true: San Francisco’s PSLO has had a tremendous impact on workers’ lives with little to no impact on the city’s businesses. Two-thirds of the employers surveyed now support the PSLO. They overwhelmingly report that their profits haven’t declined as a result of the law and two-thirds report no difficulties with implementation.

The study results suggest that part of the reason the impact on business has been minimal is that workers only take sick days when they need them. Even though the law allows workers to take between five and nine paid sick days annually, San Francisco workers used a median of just three days per year to recover from an illness or care for a sick family member. And one-quarter of workers reported that they didn’t take a single sick day. Commonly used arguments about employee abuse, just like concerns about hindering businesses, simply aren’t reflected in the real-life data coming out of San Francisco. It’s no wonder that the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, one of the chief opponents of the law prior to its passage, now concedes that there has not been an adverse impact on business closures or employee misuse.

This new data proves that access to paid sick days really does make a difference for working families. More than half of the workers surveyed said they have benefitted from the law. And the law has given workers who need paid sick days the most—including parents and workers with chronic health conditions—the time they need to care for their health and the health of their children. Every day we hear the stories of parents who are forced to choose between their children’s health and the financial well-being of their family; lower-wage workers who have to put off visits to the doctor and sacrifice their health to avoid losing their jobs; and workers with conditions like asthma and diabetes that require ongoing care but who are forced to put their long-term health in danger because they have no sick time. This study shows the power of a simple common-sense policy in improving the lives of these workers and their families.

One sobering note from the study is that not all workers have been able to enjoy the PSLO’s protections. Between one-fifth and one-third of the city’s employers are not complying with the law, either by failing to provide time off or by asking for more documentation than the law requires. The survey results are a call for greater employer education, outreach, and enforcement to maximize compliance and workers’ access to the protections the law provides.

As a whole, this new report adds to the growing evidence that paid sick days policies benefit working families, employers and our communities. Currently, 40 percent of private-sector workers in the United States don’t have access to paid sick days. And millions more cannot use the time they have to care for a sick child or family member. Washington, DC, and Milwaukee, WI, have already followed San Francisco’s lead by passing paid sick days laws, and states like Connecticut are seriously considering legislation that would guarantee workers the right to earn paid sick days. There are no more excuses for lawmakers and employers not to do the right thing for working families. The scare tactics used by opponents have been shown to be baseless. It’s time for lawmakers to reject them and enact the common-sense policies that are proven to work for everyone.

Vicki Shabo is the Director of the Work and Family Programs with the National Partnership for Women and Families based in Washington, DC.

The FMLA: Old Enough to Vote, but with Room to Grow

On the occasion of its anniversary, IWPR takes the opportunity to outline the main characteristics of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and its impact over the past 18 years.

by Kevin Miller

Saturday, February 5 marks the 18th anniversary of the day that President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 into law. The law requires that employers with 50 or more employees provide 12 weeks of job-protected leave to any employee with one year of job tenure who has worked 1,250 hours within the past year. The law does not require employers to pay employees during this leave, though employees can substitute existing sources of paid leave such as sick days and vacation time in order to receive pay during FMLA leave.

 

Job-Protected Leave

In the 18 years that the FMLA has protected the right of (some) American workers to take job-protected leave, it has helped millions: mothers taking maternity leave and new child leave, fathers taking new child leave, and workers taking medical leave or leave to care for ill or injured family members (a child, spouse, or parent). It remains the only federal law that gives Americans a right to time off work, helping Americans balance work and family.

Gender Neutral

Though FMLA leave can be taken for maternity-disability reasons, it can also be taken to care for a new child regardless of whether that child was born to the employee, born to the employee’s spouse, adopted, or fostered. Nowhere in FMLA is access restricted by gender since the law applies equally to men and women.

Limited Eligibility

A 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Labor found that in 2005, 76.1 million workers were eligible for FMLA-protected leave, or 54 percent of the workforce. Of the 65.6 million ineligible workers, 47.3 million worked at establishments too small to be covered and 18.3 million lacked the job tenure or hours-in-job to be eligible.

Unpaid Leave

The United States is one of only five nations (along with Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea) whose workers lack a legal right to paid maternity leave. Australia, which previously guaranteed only unpaid leave, has introduced paid parental leave this year. Some American workers who are eligible to use FMLA leave are unable to afford taking unpaid time off from work: a 2000 survey commissioned by the Department of Labor found that among workers who said they needed FMLA leave but did not take it, 78 percent said that they could not afford to do so without pay.

Unequal Outcomes

Despite the gender neutral language of the FMLA, both the eligibility restrictions and the unpaid nature of the leave contribute to gender inequality. Men and women in the workforce are equally likely to work at a covered employer, but women with young children are 16 percent less likely to meet eligibility requirements than are men with young children. Among eligible workers with young children, however, women are more likely than men to take leave—76 percent compared to 45 percent. The unpaid nature of FMLA leave means that married couples may need to choose one parent to take leave while the other continues to work (and receive pay).

The average full-time female worker made 77 cents on the dollar compared to male workers in 2009, so it often makes financial sense for wives to take leave (or leave work entirely) while husbands remain on the job, a strategy that can leave women earning less for years after they eventually re-enter the labor force.

Room to Grow

Passage of the FMLA took eight years of hard work by advocates, researchers, and policymakers. During that time, provisions for paid leave were removed from the proposed legislation as a compromise, with the implicit promise that the law would be revisited and strengthened over time. The FMLA has been amended in recent years, but only to improve access to unpaid leave for airline employees, and military personnel and their families.

Successful efforts to provide paid leave have been limited to the five states with Temporary Disability Insurance systems (California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island), with California and New Jersey expanding their systems to include paid family leave. A recent study of California’s paid family leave system found that implementation of the system had minimal impact on employers and greatly expanded leave for workers in low-quality jobs.

 

The signing of the FMLA in 1993 was a watershed event for American workers, finally providing Americans a job-protected right to time off work. The FMLA has helped millions of Americans take leave from work to care for a new child or family member. However, millions of Americans are not covered by or eligible under the FMLA, and some who are eligible cannot afford to take unpaid time off work. Advocates and policymakers continue to work to expand access to leave that is both job-protected and paid, with the hope that one day Americans will no longer be forced to choose between their jobs and their families.

Kevin Miller is a Senior Research Associate with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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