Spotlight Exclusives

Comprehensive Reform Enhances Women۪s Economic Security

commentary commentary, posted on

A chiropractor in a small southern Minnesota city was so horrified by the thought of his receptionist a new mother pumping breast milk during work breaks that he fired her. A young woman, fresh out of college, learned she was paid less than her male peers. When she approached her employer, assuming it was just a mistake, she was warned that if she “made waves,” she would be fired.
Sadly, stories like these are common. Too many women in Minnesota are paid less than men for the same work, suffer workplace discrimination, and lack remedies when they stand up for their rights. Minnesota women who work full time make 80 cents for every dollar a white male makes, with even larger gaps for women of color. Our policymakers know that our economy will be strong if our families thrive, and our families will thrive if our women are economically secure. But as these examples show, major reforms were needed to promote that economic security, and that is why a bipartisan majority enacted the Women۪s Economic Security Act (WESA).

Winning this victory took a carefully crafted legislative strategy. Advised by a core group of women۪s organizations, other legislative leaders and I developed a list of policies that addressed causes of the gender pay gapchoice of occupation, number of hours worked, and the undervaluation of female-dominated occupations. These policies were then drafted into 15 separate bills.

The decision to introduce these policies as separate bills was a conscious one. We wanted the flexibility to negotiate and compromise on each measure independently and to avoid a situation where the entire women۪s economic security package would fail if one provision failed.
The bills traveled through their separate legislative committees, and nine emerged. And although most were altered, sometimes significantly, to address the concerns of the business community, each component remained a significant step forward for Minnesota women.
These nine bills were merged into the omnibus WESA bill. Ultimately, the WESA passed with bipartisan support in both the House where it was supported by more than half of Republicans and Senate, and it was signed into law this May.

As enacted, the WESA addresses a broad range of issues crucial to women۪s economic security, including mitigating the pay gap between men and women and ensuring that the workplace is accommodating to the needs of current and expectant mothers.

Under the new rules, businesses that contract with the state must affirm compliance with state and federal equal pay laws and disclose their method of setting compensation. Further, employers can no longer prohibit employees from discussing their pay, nor retaliate in any way when an employee does so. Beyond these protections, women will also benefit from an April law that raised the state۪s minimum wage from $6.50 to $9.50 an hour.

The WESA also strengthens and expands existing workplace protections for women and their families. Employers must provide reasonable workplace accommodations for health conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth and cannot discriminate on the basis of “familial status” (such as being parents of minor children or pregnant).   

In addition to current requirements allowing nursing mothers unpaid break time to express breast milk, Minnesota law now mandates employers must provide a private space to nursing mothers, other than a bathroom, and cannot retaliate against an employee for asserting her “nursing mother” rights.

Finally, there are reforms to address some of the structural challenges that give rise to occupational segregation by gender. A $500,000 grant program will work to increase the number of women in high-wage, high-demand, nontraditional occupations, and a pilot program will assist female entrepreneurs in historically male-dominated industries. The state will also study and report on the feasibility of a state-managed retirement savings plan for private sector employees who have no employer-sponsored plan.

These changes will go a long way toward helping women achieve economic parity. Still, there is more work to be done in future legislative sessions.

Minnesota has the third highest child care cost in the nationaccredited child care for an infant is 89 percent of the median income of a single mother. We need to find ways to help Minnesota۪s mothers and working families secure quality, affordable child care. Additionally, we need to guarantee paid sick leave. Two-thirds of family caregivers are women, yet 54 percent of working mothers lack access to even a few paid sick days to care for children or aging parents. Finally, we should expand employment discrimination protections to those family caregivers, most often women, who care for aging parents, spouses, grandchildren, or other family members.

The Minnesota۪s Women۪s Economic Security Act is monumental. Never before have women۪s economic issues been recognized in a single, comprehensive piece of legislation as crucial to the fabric of our societyto our women, our families, and our economy. Did we get everything we wanted? No. Did we make great strides in helping women and their families achieve economic security? Absolutely. Is this a model that can be replicated in other states? Definitely.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Sandy Pappas is president of the Minnesota Senate.  

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

If you wish to submit for consideration a commentary to Spotlight, please visit our commentary guidelines and submission page.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives