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Gender Equity Commission Urges Reforms To Ensure Justice In The 'New Normal'

The downtown Pittsburgh skyline on a sunny, clear summer day.
Keith Srakocic

Less than a year after producing a harrowing report on the health crisis facing black women in Pittsburgh, the city’s Gender Equity Commission has offered some solutions – with a focus on crises in policing and health care that have dominated headlines.

“The commission is really acting as a conduit for the community. We’ve been meeting with and listening to the community for two years now. So these recommendations come from a lot of that work,” said commission chair Jessie Ramey. “Some of them will require resources, some we can do immediately. We’re really excited to get to work.”

Titled “Building an Equitable New Normal” and presented to City Council with little fanfare on Tuesday, the commission’s 28-page report makes 11 policy recommendations, which range from changes to policing to adopting new paid-leave polices for workers facing domestic violence. Some of the recommendations echo or build on current policy initiatives; others, like the proposal for a “guaranteed basic income” paid to needy Pittsburghers, are more aspirational – at least for now.

The first group of recommendations, not coincidentally given nationwide protests over police brutality, has to do with policing. Some proposals affirm prescriptions offered elsewhere, like a bid to “demilitarize” police by ending the use of “less lethal” crowd-control weapons and military-style equipment, and to shift funding from policing to other forms of community investment. More broadly, the commission urges a shift to “guardian policing,” which it describes as an approach in which “the police are not at war with civilians, eliminates warrior metaphors and related trainings, requires high-quality de-escalation and anti-racist and anti-bias training.”

It’s no accident that the policing reforms are listed first, said commission member Amanda Neatrour. Given the protests taking place nationwide, she said, “We actually put addressing police violence immediately as the number-one policy, because we wanted to send a statement that right now, this needs to be addressed. But I don't want to take away from the other policy recommendations. All of them are important."

And while the issues addressed in the report may seem disparate, distrust of police as well as health and economic issuses “are issues that if you are a black person, they’ve been at the forefront of your life." 

Some of the proposals – like expanding access to childcare for workers, or urging that financial aid prioritize women-owned businesses – address familiar concerns. Others try to build on more recent policy gains for women.  

For example, the commission says that the city’s 2015 paid sick-leave policy – which went into effect this year after being delayed by a years-long legal fight – is due for an upgrade. It says the city should require employers to offer more than the five days of sick leave currently required. It also urges the city to do more outreach to notify workers of their rights – and more enforcement to ensure employers respect them.

Another recommendation includes establishing a paid safe-leave policy, under which workers would not lose income if they have to contend with domestic violence by, say, finding new housing.

“There are people facing danger from a partner who have to choose between eating and being safe,” said Neatrour. The city provides this leave for its own work force, she noted, but says “We want to make sure this is expanded to everyone.”

Another area where the commission hopes to build on earlier success concerns hiring. Peduto instituted a 2017 “Rooney Rule,” which requires city officials to consider at least two minority candidates for each supervisory job. The commission recommends expanding that pool so that half of the candidates considered represent some form of diversity, and it urges that policy be used for all hire, not just those for supervisory positions. The latter requirement ensures that there will be a pipeline for future hires, while the former would address concerns that rule can be subverted by tokenism. The commission cites research to show that merely considering one diverse candidate has little effect on the final hiring decisions.

“If you are the lone black woman candidate, if you are the lone trans candidate, or the lone candidate with a disability, then people are going to remember you as that,” Neatrour said. “It’s so important that employers do their diligence and make sure they aren’t just checking a box – ‘Look at us, we had a black candidate!’ Look at us, we have a woman candidate!’”

Perhaps the most expansive policy recommendation in the report is that the city consider a pilot program to provide a “guaranteed basic income” as a stipend to its neediest residents. Such a program, it says, could help “people to meet basic human needs, regardless of social identities and inheritances,” and is especially important at a time when “COVID-19 necessitates sheltering in place for public health and safety reasons, resulting in extreme employment disruption and job losses” – especially in lower-wage service jobs often held by women and minority groups.

Of course, COVID-19 has also had a crushing impact on government tax revenues – Pittsburgh itself is under a hiring freeze – and the report offers little insight on how to pay for the program. But it notes a grant-funded program in Stockton, Calif. has paid $500 to a small number of people, and cites numerous historic examples where such a model has been proposed.

“We are in a budget crunch,” Neatrour acknowledged. But she adds that even “when we had money, before COVID-19, there was a lot of things that weren’t done. There’s never a good time, but for the things we are talking about now, the time was yesterday.”

Neatrour acknolwedged that she felt drained by how long it has taken to make headway on such issues –even as protests and a global pandemic had called new attention to them. She noted that the commission had released its report warning about health disparities nearly a year ago, and yet “you still have people saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know.’ That’s not exciting for me.”

Still, she said, “it does feel different now. With all the protests, and with people coming to city hall and bring their own statements, I’m choosing to believe that we will not fail. With all the people who have died needlessly due to past inaction – I am choosing to believe that we will seize this moment.

"The country is now coming to some a-ha moment, which at least for me is very strange,” she added. “But now is the time for bold leadership and very necessary recommendations.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.