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MN2020 - Health Care Cuts Hurt Working Women
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Health Care Cuts Hurt Working Women

January 19, 2012 By Julie K. Schnell, Guest Commentary

Throughout our history, the working women of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota have stood up for justice at work. During the 1940s, many of our employers insisted on lower wage scales for women doing the same jobs as men. Together, the women of our union organized against this blatant discrimination and won equal pay for equal work.

Again in the 1980s and 1990s, women in clinics and nursing homes across the state united with their co-workers to form unions in their healthcare facilities so that they could improve care and working conditions. Most recently, the women of our union stood behind our President and Congress when they passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to root out the pay discrimination we had witnessed so blatantly during our union’s history.

As a union whose membership is now predominantly female, we are constantly vigilant against attacks on working women. As we enter 2012, it’s time for working women to get ready to stand up for justice and because we learned from the 2011 legislative session that the conservative-controlled legislature will fire salvos at every turn.

The $1.23 billion in healthcare funding cuts that we saw in 2011 were a direct attack on working women. In particular, the cuts to the Personal Care Attendant (PCA) program, and the additional 20% cut to family caregivers, will land squarely on the shoulders of female caregivers who are the backbone of the homecare industry.

According to estimates, women make up more than 80% of the home care and personal care attendant workforce. Within family caregiver subsection of that workforce, the percentage of women workers is probably higher. Thus, cuts to home care in general and family caregivers specifically, fall much harder on women workers. While it is not as blatant as the male and female wage scales we saw in the 1940s, it is another case of men in power undervaluing the critical work that women do every day.

Fixing these and other healthcare cuts will depend on if the economy recovers fast enough. Much has been made of the so-called ‘surplus’, in the last Minnesota budget forecast, but it is less well known that the healthcare sector is responsible for much of the improvement. In the most recent forecast, of the $876m ‘surplus’, approximately $457 million (52%) is due to better than expected numbers from HHS. If legislators want to give women a fair shake, they should use some of the surplus to restore previous cuts.

We are also anticipating conservatives to attack working women by trying to place a right-to-work constitutional amendment on the ballot. As with the legislature’s cuts to homecare funding, the act is troubling on its face. The GOP’s continued assault on union workers is an attempt to blame union workers for the state of our economy.

Right-to-work is a smokescreen to divert voters’ attention from the fact that the richest 1% in our state fail to pay their fair share. In addition to the rhetorical attack on workers, conservatives’ efforts will have real economic impacts on working Minnesotans, especially women.

The yearly difference in earnings is $10,400 for union members vs. non-union members, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2011 report. The numbers are even more stark for women and women of color. Unionization raises female workers' wages by $2.00/hour (or 11.2 percent). Women who are in a union are also:

Joining a union has a much larger effect on a woman's probability of having health insurance than a four-year college degree (8.4 percent increase). Unionized women of color earn almost 35% percent more than non-union women of color. In their push to attack union workers, conservatives in the Legislature are also taking a direct shot at working women.

While these are just a couple of examples of the attacks we are likely to see on working women, they are indicative of the conservative movements attacks on the gains we have made—be it for workers, immigrants, women, or children.

We should not be cowed by these attacks but rather consider them an opportunity to organize and educate our communities on the actions of the Legislature and hold them accountable for their attacks. History has shown time and again that when we are vigilant and organized, we prevail.

Julie K. Schnell is president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota.

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