Marion Johnson, Think NC First Policy Analyst
This column originally appeared in the Fayetteville Observer.
Equal Pay Day fell on April 14 this year. The average woman had to work from January 2014 to April 2015 to earn what her male counterparts earned in 2014 alone. Of course, that's just for women overall - black women can't "celebrate" Equal Pay Day until July, while Latinas have to wait until November.
But April 14 came and went without any movement toward pay equity in North Carolina. North Carolina women still earn only 83 cents for every dollar that men make. Working women still face an unfair disadvantage in trying to achieve economic security.
Unfortunately, the wage gap isn't the only disadvantage working women have to face. A lack of job-protected family leave typically endangers female workers more because women are far more likely to serve as primary caregivers in their families. Only 12 states require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant and nursing women, and North Carolina isn't one of them.
Not only is this punitive burden unfair - it's also bad business. Women head more than 500,000 family households in North Carolina, and about a third of those families live below the poverty line. Their economic insecurity is weighing down the whole state's economy.
Still, the majority of state-level equal-pay laws are relatively limited in scope. Most focus either on ensuring equal pay among co-workers in the same business, or on protecting workers from retaliation for disclosing their wages, without tackling the broader issue of economic security.
One notable exception to this trend is Minnesota's Women's Economic Security Act (WESA) of 2014. As the title suggests, this bill went beyond an exclusive focus on equal pay. The bill increased Minnesota's pregnancy leave to 12 weeks; expanded family leave to include in-laws and grandparents; and provided safety leave for survivors of domestic abuse, sexual assault and stalking. It strengthened protections and accommodations for pregnant workers and increased support to "recruit, prepare, place and retain women in nontraditional occupations and apprenticeships." And it included protections from retribution for employees who disclose their wages.
North Carolina has no such law on the books, so our women still struggle to achieve economic security. In fact, in 2013 the Center for American Progress gave our state a D- in "women's economic security, leadership and health." There are no paid sick days, maternity leave or pregnant-worker fairness mandates at the state level. And the stubbornly high state poverty rate is especially bad for North Carolina women.
In 2013, North Carolina's female poverty rate was 19.3 percent, compared with 16.4 percent for men. And that number obscures how much worse it is for women of color and single mothers. Just over 13 percent of white women in North Carolina live below the poverty line; that jumps to around 30 percent for black and American Indian women, and 36.7 percent for Latina women. Roughly 40 percent of single mothers in the state are raising their families in poverty.
Recent state laws have made North Carolina an even more difficult place for women to work. The 2013 tax reform eliminated child-care tax credits, and the unemployment insurance reform prohibited caregivers from obtaining unemployment benefits if they leave their jobs to take care of a sick child or parent.
North Carolina lawmakers should follow Minnesota's lead and commit to women's economic security. It's more than just equal pay. North Carolina women need paid sick days, maternity leave and reasonable pregnancy accommodations just as much as they need equal pay for equal work.
We can only solve the lack of women's economic security by treating all of the symptoms. Otherwise women will continue to struggle against unfair obstacles, and that will continue to keep the whole state from truly moving forward.