Looking to make the workplace more family friendly, experts and legislators have continued to advocate for policies that could enhance women’s well-being and experience in Wisconsin workplaces.

More women are working and becoming their families’ primary breadwinners, but workplace environments are still relatively hostile for many, Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, said.

Women often face difficulties while taking leave to take care of children and families, Subeck said. Subeck said she had worked with someone who had lost her health insurance because she took too many breaks to breastfeed or look after her children and could not meet the minimum time requirement needed to maintain her benefits.

“No matter what the women were doing, they didn’t have the opportunities they needed to get ahead and that there were a number of systemic barriers keeping them from moving ahead,” Subeck said.

Addressing paid leave for working women

The U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not provide paid leave for employees, Subeck said. This includes maternity leave and leave to take care of sick family members.

Wisconsin’s current laws meet the “bare minimum” when it comes to policies that advocate women’s rights in the workplace, Beth Olson, University of Wisconsin associate professor and nutrition extension specialist, said.

Under federal law, larger employers must provide mothers with unpaid break time and a private place — that is not a restroom — to pump breastmilk or breastfeed. Women are also allowed to breastfeed their babies anywhere without being subjected to public indecency laws, Olson said.

Some companies offer women medical leave up to six weeks after childbirth, Olson said. Under federal law, they must also offer up to three months off as a part of family leave, but both types of leave are either partially paid or unpaid.

“Many women cannot afford to have so much unpaid time off work,” Olson said.

Olson said Wisconsin could look to California’s maternity laws, which provide leave with pay. She said these laws also made more women want to breastfeed, which is healthy for mothers and their babies in the long run.

Subeck introduced the bipartisan Healthy Babies, Working Mothers bill last session that would allow working mothers to take breaks from work to breastfeed their babies. These breaks will be counted toward their health insurance.  The bill did not go through last session because it was introduced late and the legislative session ended shortly after the bill’s first hearing.

Subeck said she will reintroduce it next session.

“[The bill] enables women who are new mothers to be able to return to workplace and not have to make a choice between going back to work and being able to look after their babies,” Subeck said.

The Breastfeeding Coalition of South-Central Wisconsin awarded Subeck the breastfeeding advocate award for her work with this bill.

Another bill that Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Cross Plains, introduced and Subeck co-sponsored, would provide employees with paid leave time to take care of themselves or sick family members. It would do so through an optional insurance program in which an individual can purchase insurance to cover time they take off after childbirth or to take care of a sick relative, Subeck said.

But this bill also failed to pass this legislative session due to a lack of Republican support. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, one of the bill’s opponents, said in a statement the proposed bill was too confusing for most employers to follow and would be a “headache.”

Olson said support from friends, family and coworkers can help new mothers overcome obstacles at the workplace, and that good family policies and support from a manager or boss at work plays a key role in encouraging participation from women. For instance, she said more women will feel comfortable breastfeeding if their manager is open to his or her employees doing so.

“This is especially important for mothers in jobs where they have less control of their schedule, or who fear that ‘making waves’ would make them vulnerable in the future to job loss or lack of promotion or other punitive response,” Olson said.

Working women stimulate the economy

Subeck said another issue that made life difficult for many women in the workplace is pay inequality. On average, women earn 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes.

Equal pay for equal work: Wisconsin lags behind for pay equalityOn the seventh anniversary of the federal Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, legislators are still working to address the importance of Read…

Working women stimulate the economy when they earn and spend that money at businesses. Equal pay also increases productivity at work, Subeck said. She said this is vital for Wisconsin’s economy, which is why the state needs to consider creating more policies that make it easier for mothers to work.

Subeck said investment in early childhood programs could also put working parents at ease while they are at work and encourage more women to go back to work. These programs would give children a good learning environment while taking care of them.

“More and more women are the primary breadwinners in their family and we need to close that pay gap because it’s not just a women’s issue or a fairness issue,” Subeck said. “It really is an issue of economic security for Wisconsin’s families.”