A Fallen Champion of Women’s Economic Rights

One of the great and rare things about Senator Ted Kennedy was that he “got” women’s issues, broadly defined, to include not only reproductive rights and reproductive health but also economic issues including work- family concerns. Amidst all the other issues he worked on — immigration, judicial appointments, disability, education, health care, and civil rights, he always had room in his large agenda for issues like child care, paid family leave, Title IX, and equal pay. Achieving equal pay and increasing the minimum wage were issues he returned to again and again. He also worked to ensure that unemployment benefits would go to low-wage workers, part-time workers, and workers who relocate because of a spouse’s job, all of whom are disproportionately female. Moreover, he championed the proposed Healthy Families Act, a bill to require employers to provide up to seven paid sick days annually, a bill developed jointly by IWPR and Senator Kennedy’s staff.
At the hearings and other events he convened, Senator Kennedy always wanted to know how workers and their families were affected by economic change, how they fared in poor economic times, and how those on the bottom rungs of the ladder could be helped. When the Democrats were not in the majority, and the Senator could not control the agenda of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, he organized briefings and even multi-day conferences or town hall meetings in the Senate buildings or the Capitol to substitute for official Committee Hearings. He hosted numerous press conferences to call attention to issues such as the low minimum wage or the lack of equal pay over the years. Many times I and others from IWPR appeared with the Senator at these events and at hearings as well. Senator Kennedy’s astute comments and questions at these events added enormously to their value. And as so many others have said, he was unfailingly gracious and appreciative to all who worked on them. At one of these events he personally came to the aid of an IWPR intern who fainted from the heat and crowded conditions and made sure a Capitol Hill paramedic team got to her immediately
Senator Kennedy’s outstanding staff reached out to academics, researchers, state and local officials, and the advocacy community to identify problems and find solutions that could become part of national public policy. Back in 2000, Holly Fechner, then Senator Kennedy’s chief labor counsel reached out to us at IWPR looking for ways to improve the ability of parents to combine work and family obligations, an issue of course of special importance to women. At IWPR we had just completed research using the Survey of Income and Program Participation that demonstrated the need for wage replacement for time taken off work when ill, especially for single mothers. Within the office, we had spent some time tossing around such potential solutions as a new social insurance system to provide partial pay and tax credits for businesses to provide paid leave
Dr. Barbara Gault, then IWPR’s Director of Research, suggested that the United States could simply have a national law that would require employers to provide a minimum number of paid sick and vacation days. The number we tossed around that day was 10 days, 5 vacation and 5 sick days. Because the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) had been under attack by conservatives who wanted to eliminate overtime premiums, I worried that many legislators would not want to open up the FLSA, which was the logical place to add a new labor standard, since that law establishes the minimum wage and the 40-hour week via its requirement of premium pay for hours worked over 40. Nevertheless this was the potential remedy we took to Holly Fechner.
Ms. Fechner thought it sounded promising and began to flesh out a concept that she then ran by labor unions and others. What emerged was the Healthy Families Act, which Senator Kennedy introduced in every Congress since 2004. It would require employers of 15 or more workers to provide at least 7 days of paid sick leave that could be used for own illness or preventive care or for the care of a family member who needs medical care. IWPR calculated the costs and benefits to employers of providing paid sick days, finding that reduced turnover costs would more than pay for the sick days. Representative Rosa DeLauro (Connecticut) joined Senator Kennedy in introducing the bill, and today it has more than 100 co-sponsors in the House and 20 in the Senate. A huge advocacy coalition works tirelessly to build support for the national bill and to pass similar bills in cities and states (see the Healthy Families Act Coalition at the National Partnership for Women and Families (http://paidsickdays.nationalpartnership.org/site/PageServer?pagename=psd_index) and the Multi-State Working Families Coalition (http://www.valuefamiliesatwork.org/ ).
IWPR continues to provide research that assesses the costs and benefits of the various versions of the bill being considered in a variety of states and locales (see http://www.iwpr.org/Health/Research_health.htm#psd).
In 2005, Senator Kennedy came to the rescue of IWPR and other data users when the Office of Management and Budget approved a request by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to eliminate the “women worker data series”–part of the Current Employment Statistics survey which establishes the number of jobs gained or lost each month from employer payrolls, average weekly hours of work, and average wages. For nearly 40 years, BLS had asked how many of the workers on payrolls were female but then decided to eliminate the question (even though it had the highest response rate) in 2004. An intense public comment period, with more than 9 to 1 in favor of keeping the data, failed to change BLS’s decision, and to save the data set, Senator Kennedy offered an amendment to the Labor-HHS appropriations bill that required BLS to reinstate the series. His amendment (joined by Senators Harkin, Lautenberg, and Clinton) passed in a voice vote on the floor in October 2005 and survived the conference in the House thanks to the work of Representatives Obey and DeLauro and their staff members. Because of Senator Kennedy, we know that in this recession men are being especially hard hit, experiencing about three-quarters of the jobs lost to date. (Women are, however, about 42 percent of all unemployed because labor market entrants and re-entrants looking for work are also counted among the unemployed.)
His breadth of interest and his depth of knowledge, his dedication, commitment, and perseverance make Senator Kennedy difficult if not impossible to replace as a leader of IWPR’s priority issues in the US Congress. Of course, women have many allies in the Congress and in the Senate who perform important work and carry our banner on a variety of issues. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut stand out for their tireless dedication to pay equity and paid family leave, respectively. Several women senators, including Senators Boxer, Hagan, Klobuchar, Lincoln, Mikulski and Murray, have addressed equal pay, family care needs, the need for flexible jobs, family and medical leave, and poverty among older women, among other issues especially important to women. But up to now, no senator has demonstrated the breadth of interest and deep knowledge of the economic issues important to women that Senator Kennedy possessed. We will miss him very much.
Heidi Hartmann, President

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