Quick Hit Op-Ed Tuesday April 14th, 2015, 2:40pm

Op-Ed: Expanding Economic Opportunity For All Women

The following op-ed is from U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL,17) and was originally published in The Hill.

Decades ago, raising three small boys in Northwest Illinois, my husband and I worked opposite shifts for years. When I was a cub newspaper reporter, I worked second shift and would arrive home from the newsroom each night just in time for my husband to leave for his graveyard shift as a rookie cop. The constant trade-offs were exhausting, and we missed spending quality time together as a family -- and as husband and wife. But just like millions of families do every day across the country, we made it work and saved for the day when we could minimize those trade-offs and spend more time together.

Today, women serve as the primary breadwinner in 40 percent of American households with children. But too many of our economic policies are holdovers from another era -- think "Mad Men" -- when women were not expected to work outside the home and not accorded much respect when they did.

That TV world may seem long, long ago, when you look at the incredible strides women have made since then. After all, women are now 33 percent more likely than men to earn college degrees by the time they turn 27. And highly visible executives like Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo are taking the corporate world by storm and changing the face of business leadership in America.

But for all the glass ceilings women have shattered in recent years, many of the gains we've seen in the boardroom haven't yet made their way to the shop floor. Too many middle- and working-class women and their families have been left behind. They've been held back by policies toward women in the workplace that belong in a televised period drama, not in the 21st-century workplace.

I have traveled across the more than 7,000 square miles in northwest and central Illinois that I'm proud to represent in Congress, and I've heard countless stories of working mothers having to make extremely difficult choices to provide for their families' economic security.

I've met women who turned down promotions and raises because a slight change in schedule would have amounted to a net pay cut when factoring in increased child care expenses.

I've heard from single mothers who have sent sick children to school because they feared losing their jobs if they called in sick to stay home and care for them.

And I've talked with too many women who work multiple part-time, low- and minimum-wage jobs yet still struggle to put food on the table for their families. They're working hard and playing by the rules but just can't seem to get ahead.

We have to do better.

And while these issues are certainly complex -- and there are no silver bullets -- I've identified four main policy priorities that will have a direct impact on working women across America:

  • Providing access to affordable and flexible child care: The average annual cost of child care in Illinois is $12,697. That's more than half the median income for single mothers! Investing in affordable child care programs would allow parents to work full time without fear for their children's safety and wellbeing. These programs should provide flexibility to working families as well. Many middle-class women don't work the standard 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. desk job. And as I know well from personal experience, finding child care for shift work is a real barrier to financial security.
  • Ensuring paid sick leave: In my home state, 43 percent of workers do not receive paid sick leave. If we instituted a national policy of paid sick leave, Illinois businesses would save roughly $272 million through increased productivity, a reduction in the spread of disease and lower employee turnover. And working moms would know they could take care of their own, when their child ran a fever or had a cold.
  • Ensuring equal pay for equal work: Women in my congressional district make only 73 cents on the dollar made by men for full-time, year-round work. That is an even larger gap than the national average. Increasing the earning power of women will put more money in the pockets of working families and boost our economy as a whole.
  • Raising the minimum wage: one in 5 women I represent lives below the federal poverty line, and it's estimated that two-thirds of minimum-wage earners are women. Increasing the minimum wage to a living wage will increase workers' spending power and their families' economic security.

My husband and I could count on each other to ensure we were both providing for and caring for our three sons. We knew that if we worked hard enough, we'd make it through our tough times and be even stronger as a family. Not every workingwoman has that luxury or the opportunities that we've had, and many today have lost hope that things will ever be better. By promoting policies that support workingwomen, we will not only strengthen our families but also our middle class and our economy as a whole.

I stand ready to work with my colleagues -- men and women, Democrats and Republicans -- to upgrade our work policies for the 21st century. Every woman -- and her family -- deserves to have the opportunity to succeed financially. Let's make it happen.

Bustos has represented Illinois's 17th Congressional District since 2013. She sits on the Agriculture and Transportation committees.


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