In 2014, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA), a broad package of provisions designed to help women who are in the workforce and their families achieve economic security. WESA requires greater workplace accommodations for women—and men—who are parents, for pregnant women and nursing mothers, and for victims of sexual or domestic abuse or stalking; WESA also prohibits employment discrimination against pregnant women or parents of minor children. WESA addresses the gender pay gap by providing programs to encourage women to get higher paying jobs or to start businesses in industry sectors that are likely to produce high revenue, by requiring certain state contractors to certify that they comply with existing state and federal equal pay laws, and by making it illegal for employers to prohibit employees from discussing their wages. Recognizing that older women often live in poverty because of a lifetime of lower pay and gender discrimination, WESA attempts to avoid that fate for the next generation of older women by establishing a study of innovative retirement savings plans for those private sector employees who are not offered such plans through their work.
In 2014, the economic status of Minnesota women reflected both encouraging and troubling trends: Minnesota led the nation in women in the workforce, with 79% of Minnesota mothers of young children working outside the home. Minnesota women also were increasingly the primary family breadwinners (mirroring the national trend). At the same time, though, 60% of Minnesota’s low-wage workers were women, a gender pay gap ranging from 20% to 43% (depending on a woman’s race/ethnicity) persisted, the affordability of rental housing in Minnesota was among the worst in the nation, Minnesota had the third highest cost for quality childcare in the nation, and Minnesota’s older women were more than twice as likely as older men to live in poverty. In summary, Minnesota women were in the workforce and their earnings were crucial to their families, but women often were not earning enough to support themselves or their families. Primary causes were the family caregiving responsibilities of women (whether for young children or for aging parents and spouses), which often conflicted with the demands of an inflexible workplace; women’s choice of occupation; and gender bias.
Minnesota legislators introduced 15 separate bills to help women earn higher pay and balance family responsibilities with work. Some bills—like raising the minimum wage—continued through the legislative process separately. Nine of the bills were wrapped together in the Women’s Economic Security Act. Minnesota was a trailblazer nationally in passing a comprehensive, single piece of legislation that addressed many different areas of law and policy, yet had a common, unifying theme of removing barriers to the economic security of women and families. Many of the WESA provisions also helped men balance family responsibilities with those of work.