By Shira Schoenberg
State Sen. Katherine Clark, a Democratic candidate for the Massachusetts 5th District congressional seat, laid out her campaign platform this week, a document that indicates the strong emphasis Clark places on the economic issues affecting women and families.
"I think that what Congress doesn't understand, that the rest of us understand, is when women are doing better, families are doing better, and that makes these issues everyone's issues," Clark said.
Clark laid out several proposals, which she discussed in an interview with The Republican/MassLive.com, which would, among other things, raise the minimum wage, mandate paid sick time and add money for early childhood education.
If elected, Clark said she would join House Democrats in pushing for the Paycheck Fairness Act. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 prohibits paying men and women unequally for the same work. The Paycheck Fairness Act would change some legal requirements to make it easier for women for prove discrimination. Employers can now argue as a defense that a wage disparity is due to any factor "other than sex." Under the Paycheck Fairness Act, the employer would have the burden of proving that a wage disparity is job-related. It would strengthen the penalties for equal wage violations and prohibit companies from retaliating against employees who discuss compensation.
Critics charge that the bill would place an undue burden on businesses. The bill was widely dismissed in Congress as a political tool for Democrats to force Republicans to take a vote that would seem unfriendly to women. Similar bills failed in the Senate in 2010 and 2012.
Clark said she thinks the bill is important, with statistics showing women still make 77 cents for each dollar a man makes. "The Paycheck Fairness Act would enable us to get transparency around the issue of compensation to start giving those businesses and women the tools they need to make sure everyone's getting paid an equal wage for an equal day's work," Clark said.
Clark also wants to raise the minimum wage. She supported a bill in the Massachusetts legislature that would increase the state minimum wage from $8 to $11 an hour. She said she thinks $11 is "about right" for the federal minimum wage as well. That would go further than Democratic President Barack Obama, who has called for raising the federal minimum wage to $9 from its current $7.25.
"Raising the minimum wage is a great way to make sure people are able to support their families, able to afford good housing, and actually be good consumers to pay taxes and put money back into our economy," Clark said.
Business groups have opposed efforts to raise the minimum wage. Brian Gilmore, a spokesman for Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said raising the minimum wage escalates the cost of hiring entry level workers, and discourages companies from hiring. Gilmore said many people in minimum wage jobs are working part-time to supplement another income or are young people seeking experience.
"One of the problems we have is there are not enough jobs currently, especially for young people who want to experience the world of work," Gilmore said. "The issue is do you want to provide entry level positions to young folks or people want to work part time to supplement their income or not?"
Clark has also been involved in a state legislative effort to require Massachusetts businesses to offer paid sick leave. She would like to see a similar policy nationwide. Clark said it is a public health issue to let people to stay home when they are sick. She called it "a basic right of workers" to care for a family member without losing pay.
Businesses have generally opposed mandated paid sick leave, arguing that it should be negotiated between workers and employers. "One size does not fit all, especially for small firms where they don't have a lot of people to cover unexpected absences," Gilmore said.
Other priorities for Clark include adding funding for early childhood education; protecting abortion rights; banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines; and avoiding cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Several unions have endorsed Clark, including chapters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, ironworkers and steelworkers, as have women's groups. EMILY's List has put her on a list of women they support.
Katie Donovan, founder of Equal Pay Negotiations LLC, which helps women negotiate higher pay, said she supports Clark because of her emphasis on women's economic issues. She believes more attention should be paid to the fact that women earn less than men, because of cultural or historical reasons or because women react differently in different situations. She supports raising the minimum wage and mandating sick leave. "Money gives you the freedom and equality to make choices," Donovan said. "We make money through work, then we can make choices that way. If we are at a disadvantage, man or woman, in employment, we're at a disadvantage at making choices about our life."