WLP of Western PA Joins the Fight for $15

Our fight for health and economic security of Pennsylvania families is usually waged behind closed doors, in offices and courtrooms. But yesterday, hundreds of low-income workers and advocates took that fight to the streets by calling for $15 minimum wage and union protections.

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

More than 1,500 workers, students and local activists in Oakland joined a nationwide day of protests Wednesday that organizers said hit 236 cities as low-wage workers walked off their jobs to call for higher wages.

The Oakland march was more than three blocks long on Forbes Avenue, which was closed for the event, backing up rush-hour traffic.

“We advocate for low-income Pennsylvanians every day,” says Sue Frietsche, Senior Staff Attorney at Women’s Law Project of Pittsburgh. “I can’t tell you how energizing it was to stand alongside people coming together in the streets to call for the simple right to support themselves. I heard story after story of people working full-time and still unable to support their families.”

(Photo: SEIU via twitter)

(Photo: SEIU via twitter)

The Fight for 15 movement, which began in 2012 when fast-food workers in Chicago and New York City protested their inability to live on minimum wage, also came to Philadelphia this week. “For more than two years, fast-food workers have been striking to sound the alarm about how wealthy companies are profiting by paying their employees wages that are too low to survive on,” Devan Spear, a University of Pennsylvania student, wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A recent study revealed that when corporations are able to under-pay their workers, taxpayers get stuck with the bill. Critics of citizens relying on public assistance may sneer for them to ‘get a job,’ but the fact is that most Americans on public assistance already have a job. Families in which at least one member is working now make up the vast majority of those enrolled in major public-assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps.

Two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, according to the NWLC. (Photo: Sue Frietsche)

Two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, according to the NWLC. (Photo: Sue Frietsche)

The Washington Post called it a “hidden cost” of low minimum wage. Taxpayers are effectively subsidizing corporations to the tune of $153 billion a year.

Two bills addressing minimum wage will be introduced within the Agenda for Women’s Health. The Agenda for Women’s Health is a legislative package of bill designed to address real problems faced by real Pennsylvanians with evidence-based policy solutions. The Agenda is supported by the pro-choice, bipartisan Women’s Health Caucus of the Pennsylvania Legislature.

HB 250 (sponsored by Rep. Patty Kim) and SB 195/196 (sponsored by Sen. Christine Tartaglione) would raise the minimum wage to $10.10. Kim’s bill would raise the tipped minimum wage to 75% of that rate; Sen. Tartaglione’s SB 196 would raise the tipped minimum wage to 70% of the minimum wage.

As always, we need your support as we raise awareness around these issues. To stay up to date on the Agenda for Women’s Health, follow our blogtwitterfacebook and tumblr pages. Sign up for our action alerts, so that we can keep you posted and tell you what you can do to show support for the Agenda, and be part of the expanding movement of ordinary Pennsylvanians calling for rational, evidence-based policy solutions to the problems faced by women in Pennsylvania.

If you are in Western Pennsylvania, please come out and meet our attorneys and staff at our annual Rights to Realities party, on May 1.










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WLP Joins Rally for the Agenda for Women’s Health at the Capitol

On Monday, a sea of pink flooded the Capitol for Planned Parenthood’s Day of Action. Women’s Law Project was there to join constituents in asking Pennsylvania lawmakers to support the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health.

The Agenda is a legislative package of bills designed to promote and protect the health and economic security of women in Pennsylvania. Agenda bills are sponsored and supported by members of the Women’s Health Caucus, a bipartisan, pro-choice caucus of the Pennsylvania Legislature. Since the first wave of Agenda bills was introduced last session, more than a dozen bills have been introduced, and three have successfully passed into law.

Hundreds of young women and men flooded the Capitol to express support for the Agenda for Women's Health (Photo: Sandi Yanisko)

Hundreds of young women and men flooded the Capitol to express support for the Agenda for Women’s Health (Photo: Sandi Yanisko)

We were thrilled to join young women and men from all over the state, many who were visiting the Capitol for the first time, to express their support for the Agenda and concern that too often in Pennsylvania politics, “women’s health” is just code for “abortion restriction.”

“What a thrill to be surrounded by hundreds of women’s health activists fighting for the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health,” says Sue Frietsche, Senior Staff Attorney at Women’s Law Project in Pittsburgh. “The Capitol looked beautiful in pink.”

Pennsylvania consistently ranks as one of the worst states for women’s health and economic security. It’s clear we need less rhetoric and more solutions to the very real problems faced by women in Pennsylvania.

For example, did you know that women who work at small businesses in Pennsylvania have less protections against sexual harassment than employees at large corporations? It’s true. An Agenda bill has been proposed to close that legal loophole by extending the protections of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, which prohibits sexual discrimination, to all companies across the state.

Even though pregnancy discrimination is technically illegal, in practice, some employers try to force pregnant workers off the job by refusing to provide minor temporary accommodations such as letting an employee sit on a stool or carry a bottle of water. We routinely receive phone calls from women around the state who are stuck in this situation. The Agenda’s “Reasonable Accommodations for Pregnant Workers” would ensure that women are not forced to choose between employment and a healthy pregnancy. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh passed limited local protections, but the rest of the women in state are left without protection.

Women’s Law Project attorney Amal Bass, who testified in support of the Philadelphia ordinance, addressed the crowd on the Capitol steps.

WLP attorney Amal Bass speaking out against pregnancy discrimination in Pennsylvania. (Photo by Sandi Yanisko)

WLP attorney Amal Bass speaking out against pregnancy discrimination in Pennsylvania. (Photo by Sandi Yanisko)

“There are many women who will never need a workplace accommodation during their pregnancies, but for individuals who do, the consequences are dire when their employer refuses to provide one,” said Bass. “Let’s make it happen. The health and economic security of women and their families should not be placed at risk simply because a pregnant worker needs a chair or help lifting a box.”

Another Agenda bill ensures that when women return to work after childbirth, they have a private and sanitary space to express milk.

A recent report revealed that without intervention, women in Pennsylvania won’t achieve equal pay until 2072. The Agenda’s Equal Pay bill would close loopholes in equal pay law by prohibiting wage secrecy, which would help narrow the gender wage gap. Many of the bills in the Agenda were developed by Pennsylvania lawmakers in response to Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women.

Now, lawmakers in the Women’s Health Caucus are finalizing new legislation and preparing to announce a third wave of Agenda bills this session.

As always, we need your support as we raise awareness around these issues. To stay up to date on the Agenda for Women’s Health, follow our blog, twitter, facebook and tumblr pages. Sign up for our action alerts, so that we can keep you posted and tell you what you can do to show support for the Agenda for Women’s Health, and be part of the movement to demand rational, evidence-based policy solutions to the problems faced by women in Pennsylvania.

If you are in Western Pennsylvania, come out and meet our attorneys and staff at our annual Rights to Realities party, on May 1.

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Tell PA You Oppose Stripping Philadelphia’s Paid Sick Day Ordinance

We need your help.

In February, Philadelphia passed earned sick day legislation.

The ordinance was a long time coming and had been well-vetted with data. National Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that low-income workers, who are disproportionately women and minorities, have less access to paid sick leave than other workers. Women are disproportionately the primary caregivers in modern families and increasingly, the primary breadwinners, too. In a recent survey, 47 percent of women who stayed home to care for a sick child reported losing pay, a particularly difficult burden in tough economic times.

Nonetheless, Mayor Nutter convened a task force to further study the issue. The task force concluded that an earned paid sick day ordinance was a positive development for both Philadelphia workers and public health, with no significant economic drawbacks.

Almost immediately, conservative lawmakers in the Pennsylvania Legislature drafted a pre-emption bill that would prohibit other jurisdictions from passing an ordinance like the one in Philadelphia. On March 3, they added a retroactive amendment to the bill, so that it could also strip Philadelphia of its progressive victory.

As Women’s Law Attorney Amal Bass explained at the time, “[The bill’s supporters claim they are] trying to ban Pennsylvania towns and cities from mandating earned paid sick days because ‘uniformity is important’. Meanwhile, the United States is the only industrialized country without earned paid sick leave. The only ‘uniformity’ we need is paid sick leave across the state and eventually throughout the country.”

A broad coalition is fighting to keep this bad bill from becoming law, from advocates for domestic violence victims to those who have already worked for years to pass the Philadelphia ordinance in the first place.

Yesterday, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence sent Senator Eichelberger a letter outlining their concerns with the bill.

From the letter:

Municipalities have shown leadership in establishing municipal policy or practice that provides important protections and accommodations for domestic violence victims who live and work within their jurisdictions. For example, in the city of Philadelphia victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking may be eligible for an amount of unpaid leave from work in order to seek medical attention, obtain counseling, create a safety plan, relocate, and seek legal assistance. This ordinance allows victims to overcome barriers to safety without threat of retaliation from their employer.

Senate Bill 333 would eliminate the ability for municipalities to pass this type of employment protection for victims of domestic violence in their community. Without access to unpaid leave victims may be less likely to seek services in order to flee their abuser—which puts victims and their children at risk of continued violence.


This bill could come up for vote TODAY. We have two small asks that will help fight this bad bill tremendously. 

Contact your Senator and tell them you oppose the state forcing back Philadelphia’s progress and endangering domestic violence survivors by stripping away the earned paid sick day ordinance.

Or simply click through to our action page.

And please spread the word by sharing this post.



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If You Don’t Want to Wait Until 2072 For Equal Pay in PA

April 14 is Equal Pay Day.

Why do we need a whole day to draw attention to the problem—and possible solutions—to gender-based wage discrimination? Because if we do nothing other than wait, Pennsylvania women will not earn equal pay until the year 2072.

That’s 57 years from now. As recently noted on The Daily Show we expect to use a 3-D printer to create a fake human heart before we expect to achieve equal pay.

Though some progress was made narrowing the gender pay gap between men and women following the adoption of the Equal Pay Act in the 1963, the progress has stalled.

As Women’s Law Project Managing Attorney Terry L. Fromson testified before the House Democratic Policy Committee last year, the ratio of women’s pay to men’s pay narrowed by only 1.7 percent between 2004 and 2013.

The most recent analysis of equal pay in Pennsylvania shows that on average women in Pennsylvania earn just 76% of what men in the state earn, though that number varies by location within the state, race and ethnicity. The gender wage gap widens significantly more for women of color, with Latinas faring the worst.

JFK Signs Equal Pay Act

JFK Signing the Equal Pay Act in 1963. Today, we need to close loopholes to make it more effective unless we don’t want to see equal pay until 2072. Photo: U.S. National Archives

The good news: there are reasonable policy solutions.

In Pennsylvania, lawmakers like Rep. Brian Sims are proposing to strengthen the Pennsylvania Equal Pay Act by closing loopholes so that employers cannot get away with paying men more for the same work and banning wage secrecy policies. Most women suffering economic discrimination by being paid less than her male counterpart do not know it until after they leave the job—or ever.

President Obama acknowledged the role of wage secrecy in perpetuating the gender wage gap last year when he signed an executive order last year prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against employees who talked about their salaries.

“Pay secrecy fosters discrimination and we should not tolerate it,” the president said, “not in federal contracting or anywhere else.”

A 2011 survey from the IWPR found that about half of workers “report that the discussion of wage and salary information is either discouraged or prohibited and/or could lead to punishment.”

Unsurprisingly, the same study found employers prefer to keep it that way.

Want to learn more?

Terry L. Fromson and a panel of experts including a representative from the U.S. Department of Labor will be speaking about equal pay and other policy issues affecting women in Pennsylvania at the Library of Philadelphia at 2pm on Tuesday, April 14.

Click here for more details and to register, and follow the conversation at #EqualPayNow.



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“It Shall Be Fair”  

By Sue Frietsche, WLP Senior Staff Attorney

I spent Saturday, March 28 with about 40 women and a few men at a workshop called, “Women’s Rights on the Job: Building Knowledge, Power and Community.” The Women’s Law Project cosponsored this event, along with Working Women Rising—a broad and growing network of working and union women from across the Pittsburgh region—and the Women’s Caucus of Fight Back Pittsburgh, the Associate Member Program of USW Local 3657.

On this cold spring afternoon, the great room at the Smithfield Church in downtown Pittsburgh was hung with bright banners saying, “$15 and a Union” and “Fight Back Pittsburgh.” The room was buzzing with workers from the restaurant, fast food, and hospital industries. It seemed that every person had a jaw-dropping story of workplace injustice to tell.

Before long, a whole wall was dotted with neon orange and fuschia sticky notes cataloguing “Issues for Working Women on the Job” (aka problems), and “How We Stand Up, Fight Back” (aka solutions).

Fair1I was struck by how many of the issues plastered on the church wall involved incredibly illegal conduct by employers (sexual harassment, wage theft, pregnancy discrimination, no accommodations for nursing mothers, unequal pay), and yet how few of the solutions involved calling a lawyer or filing a discrimination charge. This roomful of vibrant, engaged, angry women did not, for the most part, see the legal system as a useful source of protection or safety, or an available route to justice. Instead, they saw the legal system as an empty promise, or simply irrelevant to their struggles.

Fair2What can feminist lawyers do to help make the promise of workplace equality a reality for these women?

Surely, one answer is to strengthen laws. For most working parents, the need for such humane and commonsense policies such as paid sick and parental leave, a predictable schedule, affordable child care, and a living wage is nearly universal, yet these policies are simply not guaranteed by law.


Incredibly, discrimination based on a worker’s sexual orientation is perfectly legal in most Pennsylvania counties. Even when a law exists to address a problem (such as sexual harassment, unequal pay, pregnancy discrimination), it is often riddled with exceptions, exclusions, and defenses that skew it against the victim. So, expanding legal protections, closing loopholes in existing laws, and eliminating provisions that give certain employers a “free pass” to discriminate or harass are bound to help.


A second answer is to enforce these laws more aggressively. The chasm dividing Title VII from the restaurant worker whose boss won’t stop the customers from grabbing her is wide and deep. That chasm can only be bridged by people with time to listen, who do not charge by the minute, who will kindly and respectfully answer questions.


Pittsburgh has a talented plaintiffs’ employment bar that can fill this role. If you aren’t sure whether you need a lawyer, a good place to start is with the Women’s Law Project’s free, confidential telephone counseling service (M-F 9:00-5:00, 412-281-2892 or 215-928-9801).

Fair3But on Saturday, as I looked around the room and listened to story after story of outrageous injustice and abuse, it could not have been clearer that these answers aren’t enough. The burden of transforming our society into one in which women workers are treated fairly and with dignity is a heavy burden to place on the backs of individual plaintiffs, who are busy enough dodging retaliation while holding down a job they are suing over, and if successful, more often than not they are silenced by confidentiality agreements. If feminist lawyers want to make the promise of workplace equality a reality, we must sometimes log off Westlaw and join women workers in the streets.


That is why I am inviting all of my colleagues and friends to the April 15th Day of Action.


On April 15, people all across the country will be taking to the streets in historic numbers, in order to fight for dignity and respect. Fast food workers, students, and other activists will be standing up for $15 and a union. In preparing for the Saturday workshop, one of the organizer’s daughters drew a protest t-shirt design that captured the spirit of the day:



I read that little girl’s t-shirt message as a promise and a challenge.

Join us in Pittsburgh on April 15th at:

4:00 pm, Forbes & Bigelow

By the Cathedral of Learning


For more information about actions taking place across the country on 4.15 go to www.april15.org. To stay informed about the 4/15 actions in Pittsburgh, join the Facebook page.


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Philadelphia Debut of ‘The Hunting Ground’ & Discussion with Filmmaker

“Triumphant… a stirring call to action” – Indiewire

The Hunting Ground is a moving new documentary from the Oscar-nominated filmmakers behind The Invisible War. Their new film explores the problem of sexual assault on college campuses, and the broad failure of university administrators to protect victims and hold assailants accountable for their actions. As much as The Hunting Ground is about failures of our society and institutions, it is also an illuminating profile of the college activists who, by working together, transformed themselves from rape survivors to advocates demanding reform.

The incredible young women featured in The Hunting Ground successfully sparked a long-overdue conversation what college administrators can and should be doing to prevent and properly adjudicate sexual assault.

Now, we want to continue that conversation with you.

This Friday, The Hunting Ground will premiere in Philadelphia at the Ritz Five theater.

Following the 7:05 screening, The Hunting Ground producer Amy Ziering, Laura Palumbo of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center NSVRC, Kristen Houser of Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape PCAR, and Women’s Law Project Executive Director Carol E. Tracy will discuss the film.

We understand that Friday is an important religious holiday, but wanted to extend this invitation to learn more about this incredible wave of activism, meet the film’s producer and hear from Carol, who served as an advisor to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and who has a cameo appearance in the film.

The Women’s Law Project has provided legal assistance to students for many years. Recently, WLP spoke out against flawed criticism of the new adjudication process implemented at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where Carol is also a lecturer in Women’s Studies.

We hope to see you on Friday.

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What Young v. UPS Means for Pregnancy Discrimination in PA

The Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion yesterday in the landmark pregnancy discrimination case Peggy Young v. United Parcel Service. At issue is whether or not the company violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978.

In short, the news is good for women. The Supreme Court pushed the case back to a lower court, giving Peggy Young another chance to prove that the company discriminated against her. “We think it’s a big win for Peggy Young,” said Samuel Bagenstos, Young’s lawyer at the Supreme Court. “We think it’s a big win for pregnant workers around the country.”

This decision tells employers that if you are accommodating most non- pregnant workers with injuries or disabilities, while refusing to accommodate most pregnant workers who need it, you are likely violating the Pregnancy Discrimination Act by placing a significant burden on pregnant workers.

However, individual pregnant workers may still face uncertainty about their rights in the specific contexts of their own workplaces. Pregnant workers’ rights also vary by zipcode. In Pennsylvania, for example, certain workers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh currently have more protections against pregnancy discrimination in the workplace than elsewhere in the state, though that could change if a proposed bill passes into law.


The background

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by clarifying that discrimination on the basis of sex includes discrimination “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.”

Title VII applies to companies with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. Despite the PDA, many pregnant women have been fired or forced to exhaust paid or unpaid leave after requesting temporary accommodations due to physical limitations from pregnancy and related conditions. This type of discrimination disproportionately affects low-income women working jobs with physical demands, like Peggy Young.

When Ms. Young told UPS she was pregnant, UPS required her to get a doctor’s note “listing her restrictions,” which included her doctor’s directive to not lift more than 20 pounds. Ms. Young was otherwise willing to continue her regular duties, but Ms. Young was advised that she could not work while under a lifting restriction because she was “too much of a liability.”

Meanwhile, UPS regularly provided so-called “light duty” and similar accommodations to people with disabilities and people with on-the-job injuries. They even accommodated workers who had lost their commercial drivers’ licenses as a result of DUI convictions.

The Young opinion is encouraging step toward protecting pregnant workers from discrimination, but it also underscores the need to clarify protections for pregnant workers through “reasonable accommodations” policy.

The federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would better protect pregnant workers throughout the country. On the state level, the Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would clarify and standardize protections currently enjoyed only by certain workers across the state.


Pennsylvania: Patchwork of Protections

Currently, only certain workers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are protected by reasonable accommodations legislation. Pennsylvania has an opportunity, though, to extend those protections statewide through the Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PPWFA).

The PPWFA would require a covered employer to make reasonable accommodations related to pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions unless those accommodations would prove an undue hardship on the business.

“Pregnant women in Pennsylvania should not lose their jobs or suffer the consequences of working under conditions that put their health at risk because their employers deny their requests for reasonable accommodations,” said Amal Bass, staff attorney with the Women’s Law Project. “The Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would protect these workers from having to choose between the health of their pregnancies and keeping their jobs.”

The Pregnant Workers Act is part of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health, a legislative package of women’s health and equality bills introduced by the Women’s Health Caucus, a bipartisan, prochoice group of lawmakers in the Pennsylvania legislature. So far, 14 bills have been introduced through the Agenda, and three have already passed.

The Women’s Law Project signed an amici curiae brief filed by Legal Momentum and law professors Joanna Grossman and Deborah Brake in support of Young.

From the brief: “This case presents an issue of great significance for working women in the United States, who comprise nearly half the labor force. The vast majority of working women will become pregnant at some point during their working lives, and many of them will experience at least minor conflicts between job requirements or working conditions and the temporary, but real physical effects of pregnancy.”

-Tara Murtha, WLP Staff

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