The Equalizing Work Of The 1970s Is Back On The Agenda

OPINION
By Lori Sturdevant
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Stamped on the cover of the folio several hundred participants in Thursday’s Women’s Economic Security Summit in St. Paul received were two big, red words: “UNFINISHED BUSINESS.”

The stamp was adjacent to mention of the Women’s Economic Security Act, a multipart push to improve the lot of working women that got about half as far as its advocates wanted in last year’s legislative session. The coalition behind it is back this year, pushing for paid sick leave, paid leave for new parents and family caregivers, protection against workplace discrimination against caregivers, and more.

But to summit attendees whose feminist histories stretch back 30 or 40 years, “unfinished business” signified a lot more than last year’s legislative leftovers.

It evoked the broader aim of the women’s movement of the 1970s — the notion that not only would women be allowed to play more roles in work and society, but also that work and society would adapt to that new reality. New ways would be found for men and women to share in the responsibilities of adulthood — chief among them nurturing children and tending frail elderly relatives — as the two genders shared more fully in earning a living and upholding their communities.

That adaptation has been slow in coming — even in Minnesota, long a leader in the share of women employed outside the home. But lately, I think I see adaptation picking up speed.

I’d like to borrow that “unfinished business” ink stamp, so I could smack it on a big chunk of the 2016-17 state budget Gov. Mark Dayton proposed to the Legislature last week. Take his child care tax credit. It would send an estimated 130,000 families what would amount to rebates for out-of-pocket expenses for child care or the care of a disabled or elderly family member.

At $100 million over two years, Dayton’s proposed credit is a big-ticket item in the state budget, yet a relatively modest item for families. The projected average per-family credit would be $481, while the average cost of infant care in Minnesota is the third-highest in the nation, at $13,579. But the credit represents a governor’s recognition that a society and an economy that induce parents to work outside the home should bear a share of the cost of child care.

In the same spirit, Dayton’s budget also includes richer child care subsidies and preschool scholarships for low-income parents. And it starts Minnesota down a path toward public-school preschool for all 4-year-olds. The latter is costly and will surely be controversial. But taken together, Dayton’s proposals aim to make work “work” for today’s child-rearing families.

The DFL governor doesn’t have the only ideas that warrant a women’s movement “unfinished business” stamp. Quite a few bills would qualify under the category of helping employees be caregivers, too. At Thursday’s summit, Republican Sen. Carla Nelson of Rochester described one she’s sponsoring — state grants via the state Board on Aging to programs that educate and support family members who care for victims of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Care for the kids and the elderly used to be called “women’s issues,” downgraded to second-tier status among legislative priorities. Today, these issues are headliners. As President Obama said in his Jan. 20 State of the Union message, “It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.”

Meanwhile, “the boys’ issues” aren’t just for the boys. State Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-Fridley, told Thursday’s summit that one of the biggest impediments to Minnesota women doing their best as both workers and caregivers is inadequate transportation, particularly transit. She urged the women’s security coalition to join the fight that’s brewing over transportation funding this session.

By my lights, the most encouraging speaker about transforming work for a shared-responsibility world wasn’t a politician with an idea for wholesale change. It was a business owner, Pam Sartell, who is committed to making that transformation in her own shop, and is spreading news about the positive results to her business-owning peers.

The Sartell Group is a 20-employee business software developer based in downtown Minneapolis. It started with rather conventional work rules and benefits. But that changed, Sartell said, when she needed to become an emergency caregiver for her own father in Duluth. She discovered what she needed to function as both a caregiver and a business owner: flexible hours, the ability to telecommute, a supportive environment — including an office refrigerator always stocked with healthy lunches and snacks.

That’s what she seeks to provide her employees. Among the Sartell Group’s employee benefits: 100 percent coverage of health insurance premiums for both employees and dependents. She said scrapping limits on paid time off may be next at her office. She wants employees to take the time off they need when they need it to do all of their jobs well, she said.

The result is employee loyalty and retention that other companies envy — or will soon. A dip lies just ahead in Minnesota’s working-age population.

“I tell other employers, you can do this,” Sartell said. “There is going to be a major shortage in our workforce. People don’t understand how short of workers they are going to be. If an employer does not take that into consideration, they are going to have people jumping ship in favor of that organization that will cater to them as an employee.”

It’s great to see politicians taking up the unfinished business of the women’s movement. Seeing employers do it is even better.

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