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Sen. Warren stands up for working women

Sen. Warren answers our questions about women and financial matters

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Sen. Warren stands up for working women
Senator Elizabeth Warren (Photo: Courtesy of the office of Senator Elizabeth Warren)

Since U.S. Sen. Elizabeth “Liz” Warren’s election in 2012, the former Harvard Law School professor has lit up the political landscape. Her unrelenting focus on the “hammered” middle class and an economic playing field that’s uneven at best and rigged at worst struck a nerve across the country, attracting outsize media coverage and adoring crowds. The enormous attention on Massachusetts’ first-term Democratic senator even led to a vigorous — but now defunct — “Ready for Warren” draft movement for the 2016 presidential race.

Earlier this year, Warren, 66, published “A Fighting Chance,” an account of her journey from a struggling Oklahoma childhood to the marble halls of Washington, where big money buys big favors and easy access. She also chronicles her efforts as an academician and senator to change how the system benefits the ruling financial class over ordinary working families. Among the issues she’s championed over the decades, policies impacting working women have ranked at the top of her agenda. Tackling questions about federal issues important to women in the workforce, Warren outlines some of the legislative initiatives in Washington aimed at leveling the gender playing field, particularly for women in low-income jobs.

The first Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963 during the Kennedy Administration, yet significant disparities persist in equal pay for equal work between men and women. What steps need to be taken to eliminate the gap that sees women making 71 cents for every dollar a man earns?

Sen. Warren: It’s hard to believe that in 2015 we still have to fight for equal pay for equal work. According to the best data available, in 305 out of 314 major job occupation categories, men earn more than women. That’s not an accident — that’s discrimination.

I support Senator Barbara Mikulski’s Paycheck Fairness Act. This is a commonsense proposal: no discrimination, no retaliation when women ask how much the guys are getting paid, and basic data that tell us how much men and women are getting paid for key jobs. Women are tired of hearing that pay inequality isn’t real or that our lower salaries are somehow our fault — and we’re going to fight back.

Close to six out of every 10 women are now the primary or sole breadwinners for their families and must still make tough choices about caring for a sick child or showing up for work. More than 40 million workers lose pay if they take time off to recover from sickness or care for a family member. What are the prospects of passing federal legislation requiring employers to provide both paid sick leave and paid family leave?

Sen.Warren: I’m glad to be a cosponsor of the FAMILY Act in the Senate, which would help make sure that workers who have to take extended time off from work to take care of a personal medical problem or after the birth of a child are not left without income.

It’s deeply troubling that more than half of new mothers don’t have any paid leave at all — including sick days, vacation days, disability leave and maternity leave. That’s why I’m also a cosponsor of the Healthy Families Act, which would provide universal paid sick days to working Americans. Access to paid leave, including both sick leave and long-term family and medical leave, can provide economic security for millions of working families.

More than 65 percent of children under six have a single working parent or two employed parents, who pay, on average, an amount greater than a year’s tuition and fees at a four-year public college for day care. Existing subsidies reach only one in six eligible families. Are there public or private initiatives that can help relieve the financial and emotional stress of covering day-care costs?

Sen.Warren: The research is clear that providing kids with a positive environment from a young age can have a huge impact later in life, but too many working families are unable to find quality child care at a reasonable price. Ensuring there are strong federal investments in Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), Head Start and other critical child care and educational programs is a key part of how we tackle this problem.

As a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, I worked on last year’s effort to reauthorize and strengthen the CCDBG program. I’m going to keep fighting to ensure the federal government does its part to help make sure families can pay for quality child care while also managing the many other costs of raising a family.

Author: Courtesy of the office of Senator Elizabeth WarrenSen. Elizabeth Warren discusses issues with constituents.

Work-family conflicts often can be relieved through flexible workplace plans that give parents, especially women, more choices in setting their schedules to accommodate daily family needs. What can Congress do to promote more workplace flexibility?

Sen.Warren: Half of low-wage workers have little or no say over when they work, and an estimated 20 to 30 percent are in jobs where they can be called in to work at the last minute. Think about how much of a challenge it is to plan for anything — child-care, doctor’s visits, going back to school, or a getting a second job — without knowing when you’ll be working next week.

This is something we can fix. I recently introduced the Schedules That Work Act, which does two simple things. First, it gives all workers the right to request a change in their schedule without getting fired just for asking. Second, it gives workers who face the worst scheduling practices — retail, food service and cleaning workers — two weeks’ notice of their work schedules and some additional pay when they are required to wait on-call but don’t get any work. I hope Congress will act swiftly to pass this bill to provide some basic fairness in workplace scheduling for families.

You were the champion of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and served as its first administrator. How has the agency protected women and families, and what more can it still do?

Sen.Warren: The consumer agency opened its doors just four years ago, and it’s already making a real difference for families in Massachusetts and across the country. In that time, 650,000 people have filed complaints online with the CFPB about their banks, payday lenders, credit reporting agencies or other companies, and the CFPB has forced companies to return more than $10 billion directly to families they cheated.

That’s government that works for the American people — government that gives working families a fighting chance to build some security without getting ripped off by billion dollar banks. If you have an issue with a financial product or service, I hope you will reach out to the consumer agency by visiting www.consumerfinance.gov or calling (855) 411-CFPB.

Women disproportionately hold minimum wage jobs. You have advocated for raising the minimum wage to a “living wage” that allows a full-time minimum-wage worker to earn above the poverty level. Is that a realistic goal in today’s political climate?

Sen.Warren: No one should work full time and still live in poverty, and it’s long past time to give minimum wage workers a raise. Republicans in Congress refuse to move a minimum wage bill, but Democrats will continue to fight. I think the current minimum wage of $7.25 is disgraceful. I support the federal bill to raise the minimum wage to $12 by 2010, and I applaud the Fight for Fifteen that is springing up across the country. This is a tough fight, but I know this: you don’t get what you don’t fight for.

All of these issues — and many others important to women, like tax reform that spreads the burden more evenly and maintaining access to reproductive health — involve tough political fights. You decided not to run for president in 2016, so to whom can women look in the 2016 White House race and other contests to champion these causes?

Sen.Warren: Elections matter. Right now, Washington works great for those with money and power — but working people are left behind. If we’re going to help build opportunities for women and families here in Massachusetts and across the country — if we’re going to succeed in getting equal pay, improved access to child care, better wages and fair scheduling — it is powerfully important that families make their voices heard.