By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 13, 2012….Women across the state face an frightening rate of poverty as they age because many work lower-paying or part-time jobs that leave them without pensions and retirement savings, according to the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women.
Commission members gathered for their first annual lobbying day Wednesday, attempting to convince lawmakers to pass legislation that would help women achieve more economic security, including equal pay for equal work and paid sick days bills.
Commission chair Victoria Budson said the rate of poverty among older women needs to be examined. Often the primary caregivers in their families, women tend to work part-time and lower-wage jobs that don’t pay pensions and lead to them to collect less from Social Security when they retire, she said.
“Women who worked their whole lives, who have been good workers and good mothers, end up poor,” Budson said.
The largest group of people at poverty levels in the United States is elderly white women, according to Census data, “the majority of whom were not poor in their working years and never expected to be poor,” Budson said. Women outlive their spouses, or are single, and often their health care costs eat up their savings, she added.
In 2010, women who were full-time wage and salary workers had median weekly earnings of $669, or approximately 81 percent of the $824 median for men, according to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The earnings ratio has hovered in the 80 to 81 percent range since 2004.
Women in Massachusetts earn 80.5 percent to men’s annual averages, according to the Labor Bureau. Comparatively, women in Vermont make 86.2 percent, while women in New Hampshire pull in 77.1 percent and Maine 78.6 percent compared to men’s annual average salaries.
Poverty for women who are the heads of their households is even more pronounced, commission members said. In Essex County, the median income for female heads of households is $29,000 while male heads of households pull in $36,000 and couples earn $110,000, according to Patricia Fae Ho, the Essex County commissioner.
Equal pay for equal work, along with paid sick time, would help women’s economic security, Budson said. Legislation on those issues has been long stalled.
Rep. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge) and Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville) have filed legislation for several years to move women toward equal pay for comparable work (S 931). Current law does not define “comparable work.” The bill is currently in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, after receiving a favorable recommendation from the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development. The bill creates a legal definition for comparability based on skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions.
Jehlen often points to a case in Everett where public school cafeteria workers, mostly women, fought for equal pay to custodial staff – who made more money for comparable work. They sued the school committee but lost on appeal.
A bill (H 3995) allowing more workers to earn paid sick days, sponsored by Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton), is pending before the Health Care Financing Committee. Commission members recognize that a paid sick days bill likely won’t pass before the end of formal legislative sessions on July 31, but they are convinced it will eventually pass, said Elizabeth Hart, one of the commissioners.
Supporters of the bill say workers too often must choose between going to work ill and earning money and staying home sick or caring for a sick family member while losing income.
Business groups, including the Associated Industries of Massachusetts and the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business have strongly resisted mandating sick leave, warning the legislation could cost the economy as many as 12,000 jobs.
The commission was created by the Legislature with the power to study, review and report on the status of women across the commonwealth, as well as advise lawmakers on the effects of proposed legislation.
The 19 commissioners are appointed by the governor, the Senate president, the Speaker of the House and the Women’s Legislative Caucus. The commission holds hearings around the state listening to women’s concerns and issues.
During the lobbying event at the State House, Speaker Robert DeLeo told the group one of the things he is most proud of in his tenure is “appointing more women in leadership roles than any other speaker in the history of Massachusetts.” Legislators get a bump in pay for leadership positions.
DeLeo said the commission is behind the battle to establish equality, and credited them with making Massachusetts more “socially advanced.”
“You are the driving force behind women’s success,” he said.