Sunday, February 21, 2016
By JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Lecturer-in-Law, Columbia Law School & Associate Director of the Human Rights in the U.S. Project at the Law School's Human Rights Institute
Women in the United States have strived for, and achieved, equality in many areas, and have rights and freedoms unparalleled in many countries around the world. However, despite an array of legal protections, women continue to face barriers to equality.
The ways that human rights might level the playing field was the focus of the recent visit of the U.N. Working Group on discrimination against women in law and practice. The Group spent two weeks in the U.S., meeting with government representatives, lawyers, and advocates in Washington, D.C., Alabama, Texas, and Oregon. The Working Group’s conclusion: the United States “lags behind” human rights standards in protecting women’s rights. As the Working Group opined “[t]here is a myth that women already enjoy all these rights and protections under U.S. law. However, there are missing rights and protections.”
One area where the Working Group was taken aback was the degree of U.S. workplace hostility to women workers, particularly when it comes to pregnant workers and workers with caregiving responsibilities. And rightly so. There are significant gaps in protections in the arenas of gender pay equity, workplace accommodations for pregnancy, and paid leave, among others.
What does the lack of legal protection mean for American women? The answer depends, in part, on where you live.
Alabama, one of the states visited by the Working Group, demonstrates some of the harshest challenges facing women – it ranks 48th nationally with respect to support services for working parents, making it one of the worst states in which to be a caregiver of children. In Alabama, women are paid 73 cents for every dollar paid to men, with a yearly wage gap of $12,109. For women of color in Alabama, the disparity is even greater, as black women earn 57 cents for every dollar that white men make, while Latina women earn less than 41 cents.
Alabama has no state level protection requiring employers to provide accommodations for pregnant women in the workplace so that they can remain employed. Employers do not have to allow pregnant workers to carry around a water bottle or sit down when needed, for example, and can push these workers out on leave rather than allow them to work through their pregnancies. As a result of the lack of policies that ensure common sense pregnancy accommodations, pregnant women are exceptionally vulnerable to discriminatory treatment by their employers. In many cases, women in Alabama and around the country are forced to choose between a paycheck and a healthy pregnancy. With infant mortality rates above the national average in Alabama, and maternal mortality rates on the rise in the rural South, there is an urgent need for policies to ensure that pregnant workers can maintain their health.
Of course, these challenges do not end at the conclusion of pregnancy. Women with children continue to face myriad challenges in balancing workplace responsibilities and caregiving.
The U.S. is the only industrialized country that fails to ensure workers are provided paid parental leave. This is not just a global embarrassment. It is the reason that only 12 per cent of the private sector workforce is eligible for paid family leave, offered voluntarily by their employer. Yes, that means the majority of working women do not have access to paid family leave when they have a baby. This has real and tangible psychological, physical, emotional, and economic consequences.
The U.S. also fails to provide paid leave to care for ill family members and there is no national guarantee of paid sick time. Nationally, upwards of 40 million workers are not entitled to a single paid sick day, and 38 per cent of employees in the private sector have no paid sick time. In Alabama, which lacks any sick time protections, 44.6 per cent of private sector employees (more than 670,000 workers) have no ability to earn paid sick time. There are also significant implications for the approximately 700,000 children who live in families in which both parents work, or in single-parent households.
In many states, like Alabama, existing protections are a far cry from human rights standards. Yet there are cities and states that are working hard to make progress.
Human rights call for equal pay for men and women; for maternity leave with pay; for policies that enable parents to balance family obligations with work responsibilities; as well as for special workplace protections for pregnant women. These protections are laid out in CEDAW, the comprehensive treaty on women’s rights. International human rights experts have also specifically called on the U.S. to introduce paid parental leave and to address the pay gap.
There is cause for optimism that the U.S. is moving in the right direction. In the absence of federal movement on paid family leave, paid sick time, and pregnancy accommodations, three U.S. states have enacted legislation requiring employers to provide paid family leave insurance to their workersNew York began to offer paid parental leave to non-union city employees, four states, the District of Columbia, and twenty localities now have paid sick time laws insuring a minimal amount of paid sick time to most workers, and sixteen states, the District of Columbia, and four localities have protections that offer at least some accommodations for pregnant workers. Obama has used his executive authority to make incremental improvements, including by fostering transparency in wages.
These are positive steps, but further action is needed at the state and federal level. Federal legislation that has been introduced such as the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, the Schedules that Work Act, the FAMILY Act, and the Healthy Families Act would contribute to gender equality for working women and provide better support for families. If enacted, these laws would bring the U.S. much closer to human rights standards for fair treatment in the workplace. Standards that offer stronger support for women, children, and families.
Editors' Note: This post is based on a piece that originally appeared on HuffingtonPost, co-authored by JoAnn Kamuf Ward and Hillary Scrivani, the Kennedy Fellow at A Better Balance. A Better Balance and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic drafted this submission to the U.N. Working Group.