What is the General Assembly’s record this year on addressing issues that affect women and girls disproportionately?
The results are a mix of wins, losses and missed opportunities.
Domestic Violence: A new law amends the criminal statutes governing stalking to include stalking via social media, telephone and other forms of harassment, tracking and intimidation.
The law also strengthens statutes on strangulation to include suffocation and increases the penalties for violations of the conditions of a release. This law adds significant protections for victims and survivors of domestic violence, who are overwhelmingly women and frequently deal with ongoing stalking and harassment.
Human Trafficking: A new state law on sex-trafficking was enacted at a time when sex-trafficking of women and children still plagues the state. The law increases the penalty for trafficking in persons from a Class B to a Class A felony, punishable by up to 25 years in prison in line with federal law, as well as broadens the definition of sex trafficking.
The law also created a new crime, “commercial sex abuse of a minor,” which is a Class A felony if the minor is under 15 years of age. The law also requires training for state public safety, legal, health-care, and public-school employees for identifying and reporting human trafficking.
Pregnancy Discrimination: A new law protects pregnant workers against workplace discrimination and helps pregnant women maintain employment stability. The law makes it a discriminatory practice to deny an accommodation to a pregnant worker when there is no undue hardship on the employer or to require a pregnant employee to take a leave of absence when a reasonable accommodation would allow the employee to continue to perform her duties. The law also makes clear the types of accommodations usually required by pregnant workers, including more frequent breaks and temporary transfers.
Pay Equity: A pay equity bill was passed in the House despite a controversial amendment, but was not taken up by the Senate. The House voted to: prohibit employers from using a worker’s previously earned wages as a defense against a charge of pay inequity; protect employees from losing seniority by taking legally protected leaves; and strengthen the requirement that employers provide “comparable” pay for workers performing similar duties.
The original bill contained a prohibition on asking prospective employees about wage history but this provision — arguably the most important in the bill — was removed. Massachusetts recently passed such a prohibition, which is a powerful tool in combatting the long-term pay disparities that follow women from job to job.
Contraception and Health Care: A Senate bill sought to protect no cost contraception benefits and other preventive health-care benefits without regard to whether federal legislation might modify those benefits. Specifically, the bill sought to protect benefits such as FDA-approved forms of contraception; wellness visits to the doctor for women under 65; breast cancer screenings; screenings for gestational diabetes; and osteoporosis screenings for women over 60, keeping coverage flat with current Connecticut insurance plans.
The bill had bipartisan support and passed the Senate, but was never brought for a vote in the House.
Paid Family Medical Leave: Paid family medical leave did not come to a vote in either chamber of the General Assembly, although it was debated in the Senate.
Advocates have long sought to develop an insurance system that covers a portion of an employee’s wages during a legally protected leave. Available in other states, paid family medical leave seeks to promote employment stability and economic security for such employees, who are disproportionately women.
The insurance system would be funded out of worker payroll deductions at no cost to employers. State startup costs of approximately $13 million would be paid back by future premiums or the program could be outsourced. Advocates cite McKinsey & Co. studies on the positive impact of paid family medical leave on the economy and a recent poll of 243 small businesses by BLS Consulting of East Haven that showed 77 percent support paid family medical leave.
Trapped in Budget Impasse: At risk in the budget impasse is a bill establishing a modest $20 surcharge on marriage licenses that would help fund domestic violence services in Connecticut and bring the cost of a marriage license, static for decades, in line with surrounding states.
Also at risk in the budget impasse is the newly established Commission on Women, Children and Seniors, which replaced three commissions a year ago, including the 43-year-old Connecticut Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.
Mary Lee Kiernan is president and CEO of YWCA Greenwich and a board member of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women in Connecticut.