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Statement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) At the HELP Committee Roundtable: “Economic Security of Working Women: A Roundtable Discussion”

“America’s working women have made incredible strides in the workplace.  And as women succeed, America succeeds and our economy succeeds.  But huge challenges remain.  Too many working women are stuck in poor-quality, low-wage jobs, living in or near poverty, struggling to make ends meet. 

“In addition, even as women have entered the workforce, they are still usually the primary caregivers for children and elders.  Yet our workplaces have not kept up with the changing times, and most women do not have access to the supports they need to be successful workers and caregivers.

“For example, statistics show that most working women will have children—and of course everyone has parents.  But many modern workplaces just don’t acknowledge this reality.

“Pregnancy presents many challenges.  While more and more pregnant women want to, or must, work throughout their pregnancies, women who are pregnant often risk losing their jobs—despite existing legal protections—or face employers that refuse to provide the most basic accommodations. A retail cashier who has a normal pregnancy but needs a stool to sit on during the workday, or a factory worker who needs more frequent bathroom breaks can sometimes be denied such accommodations, forcing her to choose between her health and comfort, and her job. 

“The need for leave presents its own challenges.  Many working women still have no access to any caregiving leave, like maternity leave, at all, and most lack access to paid leave.  Forty percent of workers are still not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  A woman who gives birth or needs to care for a parent and has no FMLA protections could lose her job for missing work.  Even women who are fortunate enough to be covered by the FMLA are often forced to return to work too soon, because they cannot afford to take the unpaid leave that the law provides. 

“And it is no easier to address day-to-day caregiving challenges.  Children inevitably get sick, or parents need someone to accompany them to the doctor.  Yet 40 million Americans lack even a single paid sick day that they can use to care for themselves or a sick family member.  Some of these workers even risk losing their jobs for missing a single day of work.  As a result, these working caregivers constantly face agonizing choices. Do you stay home with a sick child, knowing you are putting your job and your income at risk?  Or do you leave a sick child unattended to ensure that you keep your job and your income? 

“Even when everyone is healthy, balancing work and family can be an impossible task – especially for low-wage workers.  Too many low-wage workers have impossible schedules that threaten their family’s well-being.  Workers cannot get full-time hours, or face widely varying weekly schedules. Many receive their schedules at the last-minute or are kept constantly on-call, with little to no control over their working hours.  Finding reliable child care or sticking to a budget becomes impossible under these circumstances. 

“We know from successful policies in cities and states around the country that it is possible to implement stronger measures to help working women succeed.  Raising the minimum wage, allowing women to earn paid sick days and paid family and medical leave, ensuring equal pay, requiring accommodations for pregnant workers, and allowing workers to have input into their work schedules – these are winning policies for everyone.  Families benefit.  Businesses will benefit from a more loyal and healthier workforce. And our economy benefits when women workers have steady employment and a steady paycheck.

“I look forward to today’s roundtable discussion with these distinguished panelists, who will tell us more about the experience of today’s working women and how we in Congress can help working women achieve economic security.”