House passes Women’s Economic Security Act, Senate outlook cloudy

The Minnesota House overwhelmingly passed a bill designed to improve working conditions for women.

The bill, known as the Women's Economic Security Act, aims to convince employers to pay men and women in similar jobs equally. The House passed the bill 104-24.

It requires businesses to make accommodations for pregnant and nursing women and lets employees, men or women, take 12 weeks of pregnancy and parenting leave.

Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said the goal is for all businesses to provide accommodations for new parents.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

“This is really just trying to address that all women, no matter where they work, should have those kinds of protections,” Melin said.

The bill also requires state contractors to certify that they provide men and woman in the same job categories similar pay.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce is raising concerns over that portion of the legislation. The business group says the reporting requirements are confusing and could increase litigation costs for businesses.

Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, opposed the bill. She said it puts too many expenses on employers and could discourage businesses from bidding on state contracts.

"It just may not be worth the hassle,” Loon said. “It also sets up a situation where we're not just going after bad actors. This is auditing folks and incurring expense where they may very well be the ones where we hold up examples of doing the right thing."

Despite receiving overwhelming support in the House, the bill is expected to face a tougher test in the Senate. Business lobbyists and backers of the measure were lobbying a handful of legislators on the measure.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said she’s going to make a motion to send the bill back to a conference committee for additional negotiations because of the provision that requires businesses to certify that they pay men and women in broad job categories equally.

Bonoff says she’s concerned that surgeons, nurses and engineers all fall under the same job categories.

“They say it’s according to job duties, but how are you going to decide what’s fair and not fair?” Bonoff said. “My view is that it’s not our business. Each company will view each category based on their mission”.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said Bonoff’s push to send the bill back to committee may be a close vote.

Pappas said she’s trying to ease any concerns over the bill by handing out letters from Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey that counter Bonoff's claim. The letter says his interpretation of the bill means the department will only determine that businesses are meeting equal pay laws, not ensure that employees in broader job categories receive the same pay.

Pappas said it's a misunderstanding of the bill.

“Comparable worth would be like comparing apples to oranges and we’re asking businesses to compare green apples to red apples within broad categories,” Pappas said.

It isn’t clear when the Senate will take action on the conference committee report. If the Senate passes the bill, it would then be sent to Gov. Dayton.