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House OKs bill aimed at narrowing workplace gender gaps

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The Minnesota House has approved a bill aimed at improving wages and other workplace issues for women.

After almost four hours of debate Wednesday, lawmakers OK'd the “Women’s Economic Security Act” on a 106-24 vote and sent it to the Senate.

The legislation's backers say the measure is an effort to bring women into higher wage, higher-impact careers, and jobs commonly considered “traditionally male.”

The bill is about economic security for working families and lifting women out of poverty, bill sponsor Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said.

“This is an exciting day and a long overdue day,” she said at a news conference after the bill's passage.

Women in Minnesota working full-time generally earn less than white men, according to research by the Women's Foundation of Minnesota, a nonprofit partner with the University of Minnesota Humphrey School’s Center on Women & Public Policy. White, Asian American, African American, American Indian and Latina women earn $0.80, $0.74, $0.62, $0.62 and $0.57 on the dollar, respectively, compared to white men, according to a report from the nonprofit earlier this year.

Republican critics of the bill said they were concerned about the way the bill defined "caregiver," and several GOP lawmakers said they were concerned about assigning comparable worth across categories of jobs, the Associated Press reported.

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

Debate over the bill is taking place against a revived national conversation about gender gap issues in the workplace. Democrats have launched an election-year effort to highlight gender pay disparities. President Barack Obama earlier this week said the pay gap is unfair and he signed two executive orders designed to encourage federal contractors to pay men and women equally.

According to a legislative summary, among its provisions, the newly approved Minnesota House bill:

– allows mothers to stay in the workforce by expanding family leave and providing reasonable accommodations for pregnant and nursing employees;

– supports the development of high economic impact women-owned businesses in nontraditional industries;

– increases allowable unpaid leave from six weeks to 12 weeks;

– reduces the gender pay gap through increased enforcement of equal pay laws for state contractors and allows employees to discuss pay inequities;

– decreases the gender pay gap by providing equal employment opportunities for family caregivers and reduces the “motherhood penalty”;

– addresses economic consequences of domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault by allowing victims to qualify for unemployment; and

– enhances retirement security by studying the potential of a state retirement savings plan for those without an employer-provided option.

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