A bill that aims to improve working conditions and pay for women is scheduled to be heard in a committee in the Minnesota House Thursday.
Backers say the Women's Economic Security Act, which has quietly made its way through the Legislature, would help ensure that women start earning as much as men. But one Republican lawmaker said the legislation makes women look like a bunch of "whiners," and could cause businesses to cut jobs.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, would help reduce the pay disparity between men and women by requiring businesses that contract with the state to study whether men and women are being paid the same for doing similar work.
"We've made little progress when it comes to closing this income gap between men and women so we can't keep looking for excuses as why not to do it," Melin said. "We actually have to do it."
Among those who would benefit from the proposed legislation is Claire Fromme, of Minneapolis, a nanny who watches children for three families. She doesn't like the fact that women earn less than men.
Depending what factors are considered, white women in the United States earn 77 to 82 percent of what white men do, according to some federal estimates. Women of color typically make less.
Fromme, who earns $9 an hour, also is worried that she could be at an even greater economic disadvantage because she is in a same-sex relationship.
"If you have a female head of household that's really difficult," she said. "If you have two women trying to make a household work, trying to buy a home and trying to start a business, which we're trying to do, it's really difficult."
Fromme, 27, thinks the Women's Economic Security Act will level the playing field. Under the proposal, every worker would be able to start earning paid sick leave. It also aims to end workplace discrimination, reduce child care costs, help with retirement security and crack down on domestic violence.
"As a lot of our mothers worked for equal pay we kind of thought that we didn't have to do this sort of work," Fromme said. "And hearing about this sort of thing at the Capitol and hearing this is a thing, this is really bringing together women of my age."
The proposal is a top agenda item for House Democrats and some leaders in the DFL-controlled Senate.
But some worry that the proposal goes too far.
Maria Veach, who owns three Culver's Restaurant franchises in Minnesota, said if she is required to pay one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours someone works, it could harm her bottom line. She also worries her employees could call in sick on a moment's notice, compromising the service at a lunchtime rush.
"I've been an employee, and I have never heard from my fellow employees that this has been a concern," Veach said as she prepared for the lunchtime rush at her restaurant in Anoka. "As a manager, I never heard an employee say that they needed time off and couldn't get it — that they weren't making it because they took time off."
Beth Kadoun, director of tax and fiscal policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said she's troubled by the part of the bill that requires the equal pay study. She said it could hurt businesses in Minnesota, compared to those in other states.
"The more you impose these fixed costs on employing people in Minnesota, the harder it is for those businesses to be able to survive in Minnesota," she said.
Kadoun and others question the timing of the proposal, given that it's an election year and Democrats may be looking to boost turnout among female voters.
Although DFL leaders downplayed talk that the bill is politically motivated, they were also quick to publicly denounce these recent comments by state Rep. Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury.
"These bills are putting us backwards in time," Kieffer said. "We are losing the respect that we so dearly want in the workplace by bringing up all of these special bills for women and almost making us look like whiners."
Other Republicans point out that DFL policies are making it tougher for female business owners. They say the Women's Economic Security Act, a proposed minimum wage hike, the unionization of in-home daycare centers and recent tax hikes all make Minnesota less competitive.
Gov. Mark Dayton said he hasn't taken a position on every portion of the proposal but said he supports it in concept. Dayton isn't buying the argument of the bill's opponents that it would put Minnesota businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
"If treating women fairly and responsibly makes Minnesota an outlier, I cringe for the rest of the country," he said.