What Can Cities Do For Women? Let’s Ask San Francisco

Last week, I mentioned (with some consternation) that in a 45-minute speech focusing on actions the city can take to mitigate the impacts of Trump Administration policies, Mayor Ed Murray did not find time to suggest a single policy that would benefit women. The omission was particularly galling given that just last a few weeks earlier, 170,000-plus Seattle women and allies marched from Judkins Park to downtown Seattle denouncing the administration’s proposals to repeal the Affordable Care Act (leaving more women uninsured and reverting to a system that allowed insurance companies to charge women more for insurance just for being women), defund Planned Parenthood, overturn a rule that ensures access to affordable birth control, and gut the Violence Against Women Act. (Murray mentioned the march in his speech as an example of “a surge of action across the nation,” but did not follow up with any policy proposals that might have responded to that action.)

After the speech, I talked to Murray spokesman Benton Strong a couple of times about the mayor’s omission of women from his agenda. Strong made the point that the State of the City isn’t a policy speech—the mayor usually announces big policy initiatives in his budget speech, which happens in September. Fair, but Murray’s state of the city did include a number of concrete proposals to protect immigrants and refugees, to improve outcomes for young black men, and to close the educational achievement gap. And none of Murray’s three budget speeches so far have included specific proposals to help or benefit women, so any new proposals in this year’s budget would represent a departure from precedent for Murray.

Strong also argued, reasonably enough, that ensuring health care access and funding for family planning is generally the responsibility of the state and county. He also asked me what I would propose the city to do protect women’s health care, promote pay equity, or ensure that women can take time off to care for a new baby or a family member. To quote April Ryan, I’m just a reporter, but I decided to look to see if other cities are doing anything that we could emulate. Turns out, I didn’t have to look that far. Just two states south, San Francisco has adopted quite a few policies to improve women’s equality in that city. Here are a few ideas for Mayor Murray to consider.

1. Paid parental leave

Taking time off after the birth or adoption of a new baby is vitally important to the wellbeing of both parents (particularly birth mothers) and their children, yet the US is the only developed nation that doesn’t guarantee a single day of paid parental leave. Low-income women and those with part-time or unstable jobs are hit hardest by this national failure, because they often have to return to work immediately after giving birth, giving them no time to recover or bond with their new baby. Last year, San Francisco became the first US city to address this national failure, by passing a law that requires all companies with 20 or more employees to provide six weeks of parental leave, fully paid, to new parents. (The policy complements a state law that provides six weeks of leave paid at 55 percent of a new parent’s original salary). Washington, D.C. also recently adopted a generous paid leave law, which requires companies to pay workers 90 percent of their salaries for up to eight weeks. Council member Lorena Gonzalez is currently meeting with business leaders in a series of closed-door roundtables to hear their concerns about a city-level paid-leave mandate.

pay-equity-report2. Equal Pay

Seattle still has one of the biggest pay gaps between men and women in the nation, with women earning 73 cents on the male dollar for doing the same work. Seattle has taken some action toward closing the 10-cent pay gap in city employment—a number that obscures the fact that women are underrepresented in the highest-paying city jobs—but so far has done nothing to close the yawning gulf between what private employers pay men and women for doing the same work.

This might seem like a good place for the state to step in, imposing penalties on employers who discriminate by paying women less than men. So far, though, they haven’t (and with the state senate controlled by Republicans, they won’t), so it might be up to cities to step in. San Francisco has already taken steps in that direction, by passing an Equal Pay Ordinance that requires companies that contract with the city to prove that they pay men and women equally by filing annual pay equity reports with the city’s Human Rights Commission. The commission has the authority to penalize contractors who pay women less than men. It’s not a perfect law—requiring private employers to publish what they pay their workers by race and gender would go further toward promoting pay equity in the long run—but it’s a step in the right direction, one that Seattle hasn’t taken (yet)

3. Family-friendly workplace policies

One issue that often comes up for new and expecting parents, particularly women (who still tend to be the primary caregivers) is the need to take time off to deal with family obligations—from prenatal visits to caring for a sick child or family member to daycare pickups and parent-teacher conferences. Yet many caregivers are reluctant to ask for flexible schedules or other accommodations for fear of losing their job or other retaliation. San Francisco has attempted to address this problem with its Family-Friendly Workplace Ordinance, which gives employees the explicit right to request special arrangements, such as a change in start times, part-time and part-year schedules, telecommuting and schedule predictability. Employers don’t have to grant every request, but they do have to provide a reason for refusing to provide flexibility, and can’t retaliate against workers who make such requests. The law, which applies to companies with 20 or more employees, took effect in 2013.

4. Transitional housing for domestic-violence victims

As I’ve reported, the mayor has announced sweeping plans to eliminate funding for transitional-housing programs, shifting those dollars to “rapid rehousing” programs that provide short-term vouchers for homeless Seattleites to rent housing on the private market, with the understanding that once the vouchers run out in three to 12 months, the rent will revert to market rate, currently around $2,000 a month for the average apartment in Seattle. But transitional housing for women fleeing domestic violence is also vulnerable, because the new system gives special priority to people who have been homeless the longest, meaning that abused women who aren’t already plugged into the formal domestic-violence “system” (which is already overburdened) may slip through the cracks.

San Francisco, which is also revamping its homeless-services system but relies less heavily on the federal grants that have accelerated Seattle’s shift to rapid rehousing, has a special grant program dedicated to preventing violence against women and helping female victims of domestic violence; in 2014, the last year for which data is available, the program funded nearly 12,000 bed-hours in transitional and permanent housing programs for women and children fleeing domestic violence.

5. And how about a whole department? 

Seattle has the Seattle Women’s Commission, a volunteer commission that meets once a month and advises the city on policies that impact women. San Francisco has an entire Department on the Status of Women, which focuses on advancing women’s human rights, preventing and addressing violence against women, and promoting gender equity in the workplace. A city’s values and priorities are reflected not just in policy or speeches, but in where it invests its resources, and the city of San Francisco has cemented its commitment to women by creating not just a commission made up of women who volunteer their time, but an entire department with a $7 million annual budget whose entire purpose is promoting women’s equality. Seattle should consider doing the same.

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