Paid leave, child care key to income equality

April 12 is the day in 2016 that women, on average, finally earn what men made way back in 2015. Yes, it takes women almost 15.5 months to earn what men earn in just 12.

And that’s not the whole story. When we disaggregate the data, the situation is actually far worse for many women, especially for women of color and all mothers. According to the National Women’s Law Center, African-American women typically make only 60 cents for every dollar paid to their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts. For Latinas this figure is only 55 cents, for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women it is 62 cents, and for Native American women it is 59 cents.

And mothers who work full time year-round typically have lower earnings than fathers, making just 73 cents for every dollar paid to fathers. Just because they are mothers. Further, the wage gap affects women at every education level. Even in female dominated fields such as nursing, males earn more for equal work.

The data are clear, and the damage to women and families is real. It’s urgent that we take concrete steps to fix this persistent problem. And thanks to a 2014 report issued by the Oregon Commission on Civil Rights, “Pay Inequality in Oregon,” we know exactly what those steps are.

In fact, in 2016, our state lawmakers made some progress by passing a pay transparency law making it illegal to punish employees who choose to share their salary information with coworkers. While this is an important step, it is relatively small compared to what must happen if women are to achieve pay parity.

Two steps ­— paid family and medical leave, and affordable child care — would go a long way toward helping women stay connected to the job market and boost their lifetime earnings. While these steps may not sound like obvious solutions to the problem of pay inequality, they are very much a part of the answer to a complex problem.

One key reason women experience a wage gap is that we still bear the majority of family caregiving responsibilities, from child care on up to caring for our aging parents and other relatives. And we are still penalized in the workplace for meeting these responsibilities because American workplace culture is still structured around an “ideal worker” model with a fictional family where one parent works and the other cares for all things family. Today’s reality is quite different, and it’s time for our policies to adjust.

The fact is, when people welcome a new baby or child into their lives, they need paid time off from work. Without it, new parents — especially mothers — experience spells of poverty due to lost income while out on unpaid leave, or they are forced out of the job market because without paid leave they have little to no time off to bond with and care for a new child. One report found that one-quarter of mothers in the United States have to return to work within a ridiculously short two weeks of giving birth!

Both unpaid and paid leave situations cause income loss and often job loss with longer-term financial impacts (not to mention a pretty dreadful introduction to parenthood). To return to work, parents need some form of child care. In Oregon, child care is very expensive (in 2014, the cost of full-time infant care exceeded in-state college tuition, but without the 18 years to save up!), forcing some parents, typically mothers, to work fewer hours or leave the workforce altogether to make ends meet and ensure their children are in high-quality care.

While more men are providing care for their own kids, it is more often mothers who have to adjust their work schedules. Part-time work is typically paid less than similar full-time work and, of course, often lacks benefits. And time out of the workplace leads to lower seniority, fewer promotions, and lower lifetime pay and opportunities. We must take significant steps toward making child care affordable for more Oregon families so parenthood in Oregon doesn’t mean lower pay and opportunity.

It’s not just in the best interest of women and families; the positive impacts will be felt in communities across our state and our economy as a whole.

This year on Equal Pay Day, let’s commit to making real progress to closing the wage gap. Oregon women and their families are counting on us!

Laurie Trieger of Eugene is regional outreach director of Family Forward Oregon.

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