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Women’s Health Caucus Introduces Bills to Protect Pregnant Workers, Survivors of Domestic Violence

Economic issues are central to women’s health, according to Pennsylvania State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny), co-chair of the legislative Women’s Health Caucus, which on Monday announced its 2015-2016 Agenda for Women’s Health.

The bi-partisan, bi-cameral group has four main goals goals: creating family-friend working conditions, promoting economic fairness, enhancing healthy lives and raising awareness for domestic violence and sexual assault.

This session’s agenda is made of up 12 different initiatives, many of which are being introduced in both the House and Senate by various members of the caucus.

One bill, which sponsor Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery) called “small but … mighty” would help domestic violence survivors who often face the “financial crush” of having to move in order to protect themselves.

“Something as small as allowing the victim of domestic violence to get the locks changed on his or her apartment, or more importantly, if it is untenable to stay in that situation, to be able to break the lease early,” Dean said.

Another bill addressing violence against women would require colleges and universities keep transparent records of reported sexual assaults, create policies to specifically address sexual assault on campus and provide additional educational resources to students.

Co-sponsor Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) said she was motivated to introduce the legislation after hearing about the recent scandal at Penn State University where fraternity members were posting pictures of nude women on Facebook, allegedly without their consent.

“I’m an alum myself,” Schwank said. “It’s a wonderful institution, but it certainly demonstrates that more work needs to be done on that issue.”

Schwank is also a co-sponsor of a bill that would increase the amount of money a person can make and still qualify for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF. Schwank said it can often cost low-income women so much to get to work and pay for childcare, that it cancels out the money they make at their job. Currently, people can deduct 50 percent of their earned income; Schwank’s bill would allow them to deduct 100 percent.

“It doesn’t make sense to work if it’s a net financial loss to go back to work, rather than staying on benefits,” Schwank said. “Our job really is to help bring people out of poverty, and to do that we need to give them at least some kind of support or safety net.”

Another bill designed to help people get out of poverty would affect 1.2 million Pennsylvanians, according to the left-leaning Keystone Research Center.

Rep. Patty Kim (D-Dauphin) is co-sponsor of a bill that would increase the state’s minimum wage from $7.25/hour to $9/hour immediately, and then to $10.10/hour one year later.

“As many of you know, more than half of minimum wage workers are women,” Kim said. “They are servers, cashiers, daycare workers, home health care workers who work very hard to make ends meet for their families.”

Several other bills deal with women in the workplace, including a bill that would require employers to provide sanitary conditions for breastfeeding or pumping breast milk and another that would require reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers.

Sponsor Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) said the emphasis is on the world “reasonable.”

“Reasonable accommodations can include providing periodic rest or a chair for an employee who stands for a long period of time, or assistance with heavy lifting, access to drinking water, uncompensated break time and possibly a temporary job shift,” Delozier said.

Sen. Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin, Perry) is introducing legislation that would increase protections for employees who have filed complaints against their employer and prohibit retaliation against employees who discuss wages.

The bill would also specifically require employers fighting wage discrimination lawsuits to show that factors such as education, training, seniority, merit or quantity or quality of work are the reason for wage disparities. Teplitz said currently, the law allows employers to point to any “factor other than sex,” which advocates argue gives employers too much latitude to discriminate.

“Wage inequality and pay secrecy are not only a detriment to working women, but to the families and communities that they are a part of,” Teplitz said. “Our legislation will help close loopholes and prevent this discriminatory practice of pay secrecy and income inequality from continuing.”

Also included in the package is a bill from Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) would prohibit the legislature from determining what information doctors may or may not provide to their patients.

“The passage of Act 13 a few years ago created serious doubt about whether or not doctors are allowed to ask for ingredients in fracking fluid that could be making their patients sick or from discussing treatment options with other doctors if it relates to sensitive fracking information,” Frankel said. “There is clearly a gag rule … that needs to be reversed.”

Additional pieces of legislation would create a task force for studying challenges faced by female veterans, require a 15-foot buffer zone around patients entering reproductive health clinics and allow victims of domestic violence to terminate cell phone contracts without penalty, among other initiatives.

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.