On July 19 and 20, we acknowledge a defining moment in the ongoing fight for women's equality. One hundred and sixty five years ago, the first Women's Rights Convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York. These brave, early suffragists brought to public consciousness the importance of equal treatment for women under the law.
Yet despite significant triumphs for women over many decades, the fight for fairness and equality carries on. Discrimination and inequality continue to punish New York women, especially the pregnant women and mothers of our state with the fewest resources.
At my non-profit organization, A Better Balance: The Work and Family Legal Center, we see it up close.
Consider the following true stories:
-Amelia, a pregnant care attendant, was sent home from work, 17 weeks pregnant, because she submitted a doctor's note with a modest lifting restriction -- she had a history of miscarriages. She wound up in a homeless shelter.
-Lucinda, a pregnant retail worker, was rushed to the emergency room when she fainted on the job because her boss would not let her drink water while standing for hours at the cash register.
-Alex, a supermarket employee with a lifting restriction because of her pregnancy, was sent home and onto disability insurance, which ended a month before she gave birth. She lost her health insurance and had to go on Medicaid.
Women like Amelia, Lucinda and Alex (names changed) would benefit tomorrow from a pregnancy discrimination bill in Governor Cuomo's women's equality agenda, now languishing in the New York State Legislature.
Specifically, this critically important bill would ensure that pregnant workers have a clear legal right to modest workplace accommodations to keep them healthy and on the job (unless the requested accommodation would impose an "undue hardship" on the employer). Unlike states such as California, New York does not have a law on the books guaranteeing that pregnant women cannot be pushed out of their jobs just because they need something as simple as a stool to sit on to maintain a healthy pregnancy. As a result, employers routinely treat pregnant workers worse than other employees with disabilities or on-the-job injuries, forcing them off the job when a modest accommodation could keep them earning a living and off of public benefits.
Other key measures include strengthening New York's equal pay law and ending family status discrimination. New York women earn 84 percent of what men earn -- for African-American and Hispanic women, the gap is even wider (they earn 79 percent and 64 percent of what men earn, respectively). In addition, women with children are less likely to be recommended for hire and promotion, and in most cases, are offered less in starting salary than similarly situated men. The long-term consequences are simply devastating: an average woman loses $434,000 over a 40-year career due to the motherhood penalty, and women are twice as likely to live out old age in poverty.
In a nation that prides itself on equal opportunity, it's shameful that in 2013, New York women are being forced to choose between their job and a healthy pregnancy. And it's simply unacceptable that women, particularly mothers, suffer wage penalties that too often jeopardize their family's economic security.
To our great disappointment, the State Legislature has recessed for the summer without passing Governor Cuomo's groundbreaking Women's Equality Act, critical legislation designed to bring fairness, justice and opportunity to the women of New York. While the Assembly passed the entire 10-point Women's Equality Act (WEA) omnibus bill, unfortunately, the Senate did not bring the reproductive health provision of the WEA to a vote and passed only nine of the ten women's equality bills. In turn, the Assembly refused to pass these separate bills, and the women of New York ended the legislative session no better.
The Assembly's leadership and passionate commitment to reproductive choice and women's equality must be applauded. However, when there is a clear opportunity to improve women's lives tomorrow, which there is, our legislators must act. The Assembly should return to Albany to pass these individual bills and advance women's equality immediately--the women of New York cannot afford to wait.
Without question, our fight will not be over -- for reproductive choice, paid family leave, and other measures that would help women achieve full equality in the workplace and society at large. However, New York will stand taller as a model of fairness and equality if the Assembly acts now -- and that should make us all, including our sisters at Seneca Falls, proud.