Improving Women’s Health Requires Fully Addressing Violence

The first thing most people think of when asked about the economic cost of abuse is health care. This is not surprising considering the enduring stereotypes – the image of a domestic violence victim with a black eye and broken arm or the rape victim going to the ER after being attacked by a stranger. This immediate focus on health care costs is also not without good reason: intimate partner violence (IPV) results in two million injuries for US women every year and medical costs ranging from $2.3 billion to $7 billion within one year of violence. Consequently, women experiencing physical abuse faced health care costs 42% higher than non-abused women.

It is essential that women receive affordable, quality treatment for these health costs so that they may remain safe and economically secure, which means looking beyond the stereotypes to address every aspect of health-related impacts, including the following.

  • Mental health care: Whether survivors experience depression, anxiety or PTSD, mental health needs can be just as costly and impactful as more visible physical needs. They may also affect survivors’ ability to maintain their jobs and care for themselves or their families.
  • Long-term health care: Health care costs continue to be 19% higher for survivors than for non-abused women even five or more years after physical violence. Mental health needs, especially for sexual assault survivors, may also take years to appear, long after survivors are eligible for crime victim compensation (CVC) or other financial assistance. In addition, trauma from domestic and sexual violence often leads survivors to engage in other risky behaviors, such as abusing drugs or alcohol and unsafe sex, with far-reaching consequences on their health.
  • Access to health insurance: In order for survivors to weather the added costs of physical and mental health care without falling into dangerous economic insecurity, they must have adequate health insurance. However, survivors may receive insurance through their abusive partner, which complicates their decisions to leave or seek treatments that their abuser could find out about. Survivors with employment-based insurance may be at risk of losing it if their jobs are in jeopardy from an abuser targeting them at work. Survivors may also be suffering abuse or harassment at the workplace in order to keep their jobs and health insurance.

This week is National Women’s Health Week and WOW is thrilled that “Talk to my doctor about any domestic or interpersonal violence” is a recommendation for every age and that mental health is a priority. Considering the immense impact of violence on health, it is critical that doctors have the training to respond to domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. Rather than checking off whether they asked about domestic violence, they should be able to recognize the signs of each form of violence and take appropriate action, such as by directing survivors to mental health professionals and community resources. Adequate and supportive policies are also needed at every level. Health care professionals, direct service providers and policymakers should account for the importance of health insurance for survivors’ economic security and the added complications that survivors may face in acquiring or accessing it. In addition, policies should address the long-term and diverse health impacts of violence. For example, survivors would benefit from having access to CVC funds long after the crime itself and insurance coverage for contraception or STI treatment that may be needed following reproductive coercion or sexual assault.

National Women’s Health Week is a good start towards a great mission, but until the proper training, infrastructure and policies are in place, a simple annual check-up is not going to significantly address the health-related consequences of violence.

 

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To Be Savored: A Victory for New Jersey Seniors

When I heard that Governor Chris Christie had signed the New Jersey Elder Index bill, I was thrilled. A long-term collaboration between Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) and the New Jersey Foundation for Aging had finally culminated in enactment of a bill (A3504/S2231) which will really make a difference for New Jersey seniors!

The new law, sponsored in the state legislature by Assemblyman Joseph Lagana and Senator Loretta Weinberg, gives NJ’s Department of Human Services (DHS) a powerful tool for assessing and addressing the needs of seniors in the state—the New Jersey Elder Economic Security Standard Index (NJ Elder Index). The NJ Elder Index is based on WOW’s Elder Economic Security Standard Index (Elder Index), which was developed by WOW in association with UMass Boston Gerontology Institute.  The Elder Index is a measure of what it costs older adults to make ends meet—at a very basic level—in every state and county across the nation.

In New Jersey, many Area Agencies on Aging and other nonprofits have been using the NJ Elder Index for years to understand and plan around the economic conditions of those they serve, but this legislation takes it to a whole new level. The state itself will update the NJ Elder Index annually, and will consult it in making recommendations for program funding, suggesting public benefit eligibility levels, benchmarking program impacts, designing public outreach, and evaluating case management.  On top of that, DHS will calculate long-term care costs for NJ seniors—a potentially very large expense for which older adults are often unprepared. Armed with this data and related research, DHS can create a more meaningful and effective response to senior needs now and in the future.

The victory is sweet for the citizens of New Jersey, specifically its seniors, and for WOW and the New Jersey Foundation for Aging (NJFA). NJFA’s Executive Director, Grace Egan and Program Manager, Melissa Chalker, have both spent many hours in briefings, presentations, and personal conversations with fellow nonprofit staff, county and state policymakers, and anyone else who would listen about the economic insecurity faced by NJ elders. A strong voice for policies and programs that help fill the gaps for struggling seniors, NJFA has constantly been in the trenches fighting to preserve and expand energy, food and housing assistance for those struggling to get by.

And so we pause to celebrate the moment, salute our partners, and acknowledge, with appreciation, the foresight of NJ’s Governor and legislators who have just taken a step forward for elder economic security. Hats off to all!

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Thank you!

After 5 amazing years at Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) and 15 wonderful years teaching in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University, I now find myself writing a new chapter of my life.  This Friday I will be leaving WOW and—after teaching my final Women and Work class this summer semester—I will be leaving Rutgers.   I have accepted an appointment as an Associate Professor of Sociology at Guttman College, a new community college in the City University of New York (CUNY) system starting in August.

The past decade and a half have been just incredible.  I am so grateful to the Rutgers Department of Labor Studies for providing me with a learning space that I shared with smart and dedicated students and faculty who were committed to social justice.  In my 15 years at Rutgers I was fortunate to teach both graduate and undergraduate students; teach on the community college campuses throughout New Jersey; engage students in research projects; and learn various instructional formats (from in-person to fully online).  I have grown so much as a teacher and am honored to have been part of the Labor Studies faculty for so long.

My five years at WOW have been more than I could have wished. WOW allowed me to reach a goal of mine—to be part of an organization that is research and advocacy based in Washington DC.  My wonderful colleagues at WOW are amongst the hardest working and most passionate in DC!  I am so grateful to WOW for giving me incredible opportunities to lead research that led to advocacy and policy change.  There were so many wonderful experiences over the past years– way too many to mention. Some highlights included: working with the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) to issue the first research on Jersey Shore restaurant workers post-hurricane Sandy; releasing my book All I Want is a Job and the incredible opportunities to share that research with the US Department of Labor and other organizations; leading research with Social Dynamics for the White House Workplace Flexibility forums that helped demonstrate the need for workplace flexibility and schedule control for low wage workers;  providing technical assistance on national workforce programs that had as the goal recruiting and retaining women in nontraditional high-wage careers fields; conducting focus groups with LGBT senior citizens in Boston which lead to a research brief on the challenges of economic security and aging for LBGT seniors; and being part of a team that, just last week, helped to pass legislation in New Jersey that will help seniors better age with economic security in the state.

And I am so thankful to WOW for having a progressive workplace flexibility policy—allowing me to work in DC but still live in New Jersey. I am also appreciative of the many people I met through my work.  There is a wonderful community of progressive, dedicated and tireless advocates in DC and throughout this country.   Mostly, though, I am most grateful that I can earn a living following my passion for democratizing access to education and jobs that offer pathways to economic security for women and their families.

I look forward to joining the CUNY-Guttman faculty this summer.  This new community college in the CUNY system provides me with the opportunity to be part of a new and emerging team that is founded on best practices and innovative teaching models that nurture student success at an urban public college.  The experiential model of teaching that Guttman is founded on, aligns so much with my teaching and research philosophies, that I am very much welcoming the work ahead!

My WOW email address will still be active, as I am fortunate to be able to maintain an affiliation with WOW even after I am gone.

If you need to reach WOW on one of my current projects, please contact Shawn McMahon at SMcmahon@wowonline.org

Thanks for everything and stay in touch,

Mary

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Another Mother’s Day and So Little Has Changed: Isn’t It Time for Public Policies that Support Working Mothers?

On Mother’s Day in 2015, so many working mothers are struggling to support themselves and their families. And unfortunately they can find very little support in federal legislation.  Today there are only three federal laws that protect mothers in the workforce: the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid job protected leave to new or expectant parents, and a provision of the 2010 health care reform that expands the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act to protect mothers who are breastfeeding in the workplace.

And these laws aren’t even protecting all working mothers. For instance, FMLA is job protected family leave that is only available to workers who met certain criteria.  Workers must have worked for their employer for at least 12 months; performed at least 1,250 hours of service for the employer during the 12 month period immediately preceding the leave; and worked at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles.  And, even more important, is this leave is UNPAID.  So if a worker cannot afford to take time off without pay, they simply cannot take FMLA without facing serious financial consequences.

The United States stands with only one other country in the world–  Papua New Guinea—that does not have a law that requires PAID family leave for new mothers and other caregivers.  In addition, the US lags behind most countries in regard to other workplace protections for parents.   The US does not have paid sick days law—forcing working mothers to work sick or come to work while their child is sick. In fact a mother can be fired for calling out of work if she or her child is sick. Working mothers also have no right to schedule control—meaning they are at the mercy of their employer to schedule their work shifts in ways that allow them to try to manage their family demands.  Childcare continues to be unaffordable and inaccessible to many mothers.  And of course, working mothers continue to face a pay gap in the workplace. Importantly since women are now breadwinners for 40% of US families with children under the age of 18, this is not just a working mother issue, this is a working families crisis.  While a handful of states have passed laws that provide paid leave, paid sick days and/or schedule control, the vast majority of working mothers are left without any protections.

Not surprisingly then, on this Mother’s Day, working mothers’ economic insecurity results, in part, from a lack of strong public policies that support working families. Working mothers are forced to address the conflicts of work and family labor on their own– often having to make hard and sometimes life-threatening choices.  And for single mothers, their situation is significantly worse. In 2013 the poverty rate for female-headed families with children was 39.6 percent, compared to 19.7 percent for male-headed families with children, and 7.6 percent for families with children headed by a married couple. In fact, nearly 522,000 single women with children (12.0 percent) who worked full time, year round in 2013 lived in poverty.  What is perhaps even more troubling is that years out of the recession single working mothers are actually MORE economically insecure. Between 2007 and 2012, the share of female-headed working families that are low-income increased from 54 percent to 58 percent, according to a Population Reference Bureau (PRB) analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.  Quite simply the individualistic approach to addressing work and family is just not working.

So on this Mother’s Day perhaps it is finally the time for “ Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves” for far too long to have to have workplace protections and public policies that can actually support the economic security of mothers and their families.

Photo Source: https://aaaaahhhhshark.wordpress.com/2010/02/

Photo Source: https://aaaaahhhhshark.wordpress.com/2010/02/

 

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Looking Beyond Campus Sexual Assault

The stats are alarming. Nearly 15 percent of American women are victims of rape. And girls between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely to be victims of rape or sexual assault than the general population. With these statistics, it is understandable why prevention efforts often focus on college-aged women, especially considering high profile sexual assault cases including the Columbia University student who has garnered national attention for carrying her mattress around campus and the recent spring break gang rape in Panama City, Florida. New resources and efforts have emerged to combat violence on campuses. The White House’s new initiative, “It’s On Us”, seeks to raise awareness and engage the community to take a stand against sexual assault. The recent FY16 budget proposed by the Obama Administration included a $14 million increase in funding for campus violence programs while sexual assault programs as a whole were budgeted at $3 million less than in FY15. These campus prevention and response efforts are clearly necessary and warranted, but it is important that they don’t diminish resources directed toward survivors who do not fall into the population of young women in college.

A recent report from the US Department of Justice, Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females, 1995–2013, found that nonstudents were raped at a rate that was 1.2 times higher than students. And there are other differences. Rural nonstudents experience much higher rates of rape than rural students – 2 times higher. And while women aged 18-24 have the highest rates of sexual assault of all age groups, the remaining 62.6% of rape survivors were under 18 or over 25 years of age at the time of their assault.

SA Chart 2013Young women aged 18-24 who are nonstudents will likely have few resources and be less economically secure than their peers in college. Women with a high school diploma earn an average $21,968 a year, which is 72% of the income needed to be economically secure. The physical and psychological care, new safety measures and other resources needed to move forward and recover from violence are often out of reach for those who are economically insecure. Furthermore, those in the workforce with lower incomes – especially women and minorities – also often lack the necessary workplace protections such as sick leave so that they can attend to their safety needs.

Rural survivors also face challenges to safety and economic security due to geographic isolation, absent or deficient resources, and depressed economic opportunity. Not only are rural women more economically insecure than their urban peers, they have less access to critical victim services. While survivors on campus access to basic health services on campus and support services as required by Title IX, in rural parts of the country such services either don’t exist or require survivors to travel significant distances for help. In a survey of rural prosecutors, two-thirds report that there were no rape crisis services in their jurisdictions and that 62.5% lacked trained sexual assault nurse practitioners.

These survivors need adequate resources and supports so they can move forward and recover from violence. While the attention and resources that campus sexual assault is receiving is necessary and welcome, it shouldn’t be at the expense of or overshadow the needs of other survivors. As this year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month concludes, we mustn’t forget the other victims of sexual assault.

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Honoring the ADA by Recognizing the Needs of Survivors with Disabilities

With the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) entering into its 25th year in 2015, it is important to remember the impact that sexual and domestic violence has on survivors with disabilities. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s fact sheet, women with disabilities have a 40% greater risk of experiencing violence than women without disabilities and approximately 80% of disabled women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Oftentimes women with disabilities are more dependent on their caretakers and family members, increasing their vulnerability and risk of repeat abuse while decreasing their likelihood of reporting. A study by Wendie H. Abramson found that 47% of sexually abused women with disabilities reported assaults on more than ten occasions. While this level of repeated abuse is staggering, it is likely that much more goes unreported as survivors with disabilities face extensive barriers when choosing whether to report and seeking support services.

Survivors with disabilities are commonly hindered by limited resources due to unemployment or underemployment — the unemployment rate for people with disabilities in 2013 was 13.2%— a lack of transportation, a lack of knowledge about available support services, and service facilities that have not been properly trained to help survivors with disabilities. Transportation is often a necessity when it comes to safety and economic security, both in terms of being able to access employment to be independent and to access support from local service locations. Since many perpetrators of abuse against survivors with disabilities are caregivers, a survivor’s access to safe and secure transportation to supportive programs is easily taken away. A lack of knowledge from both survivors and service providers can also lead to a great disparagement in aid. If survivors don’t know that support is available, they cannot utilize it and if service providers are not properly trained in how to help survivors with disabilities, then the support will not be effective. NCADV states that only 35% of shelters surveyed have disability awareness training for their staff and a mere 16% have a dedicated staff person to deliver services to women with disabilities.

Establishing a secure source of income, increasing the amount of service providers that offer transportation assistance and improving education, awareness and training are all to key to providing more survivors with better disabilities support. In an effort to increase the resources that organizations have to help survivors with disabilities, VAWA has established a Training and Services to End Violence Against Women with Disabilities Grant Program that “establishes and strengthens multidisciplinary collaborative relationships and increases organizational capacity to provide accessible, safe, and effective services to individuals with disabilities and Deaf individuals who are victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking.” If want to know more about the ADA or if you’re looking for ways to celebrate the Act in your organization, click here for the ADA Anniversary Toolkit!

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Why Workplace Leave and Flexibility Matter

Working as an advocate for low-income families at Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), I have always been grateful for a good job, a safe home and some stability. I consider myself incredibly fortunate and am thankful every day because I know that in a moment’s notice, this all can change. Economic insecurity is just one emergency away for so many of us. A year ago I faced that emergency.

Pregnant with my first child, I knew my life was in for a big change. My husband and I consciously decided to start a family at a point in our lives when we felt stable and reasonably economically secure. I knew things would be difficult – like most new parents I worried about my ability to balance work with family responsibilities and the cost of raising a child – but I never imagined nor was I prepared for the challenge we faced. While traveling to upstate New York and nearing the end of my fifth month of pregnancy, my water broke. After being admitted into a hospital more than seven hours from home, the doctors were able to stabilize my and my baby’s condition. We suddenly found ourselves facing a life-threatening emergency with no option of returning home for an unknown amount of time.

After being admitted into the hospital, I called my boss to explain the situation. I did this without fear of losing my job. WOW made accommodations so that – per my request – I could work remotely from the hospital and allowed me to maintain a flexible schedule to accommodate the uncertainty of my situation. Fortunately, my husband received the same response from his employer and he was able to stay in Syracuse with us. With my job secure, I still had health insurance to cover the high cost of the specialized care that we would need. Our combined medical bills would total well over a half million dollars, a sum that would have bankrupted us without excellent coverage.

How much did these workplace accommodations and good health benefits mean to the economic security and emotional well being of my family? At 24 weeks gestation our son faced terrible odds – survival rates were between 50% and 70% and he would likely face moderate to severe long-term health problems. Not having to worry about my job or ability to pay the hospital bills reduced my stress, allowing me to remain strong and positive, which certainly prolonged my pregnancy and affected my son’s well being. While most women experiencing their water breaking so early into their pregnancy deliver within 48 hours, we were able to delay labor and buy him precious time. Three weeks after being admitted to the hospital my son, Henry, a tiny 2 pounds 7 ounce fighter, was born 13 weeks prematurely.

Being away from home with no option to be transferred to a local hospital due to the precariousness of Henry’s health, we were faced with many more unexpected expenses, particularly a need for temporary housing. Organizations like the Ronald McDonald House of Central New York, where we lived for three months during my son’s stay in the neonatal intensive care unit, provided us with housing and food at just a fraction of the cost we would have paid for a hotel room. Furthermore, because of Henry’s low-birth weight he was eligible to receive Social Security Insurance benefits during his hospitalization. While the process of accessing this benefit was incredibly cumbersome and frustrating, this support helped us cover the some of the additional expenses we faced being away from home.

2014 was the most difficult and heart-wrenching year of my life, but I am happy to say despite those many terrifying months and hardships, my son is now a thriving and healthy one-year-old. Unlike many others, our story had a happy ending.

I am sharing my story, not only because I am grateful, but also because this demonstrates why all families need these types of protections and supports when things go wrong. Employer flexibility and the ability to work remotely enabled me and my husband to keep our jobs and benefits with no undue hardship on our workplaces. Having health insurance meant that we were able to afford the care that saved my son’s life. Community services and safety net programs helped to provide support to us in a time of need and reduced the amount of debt we accumulated. All of these elements are critical for family economic security and without them my life might be very different today. I am incredibly fortunate to still have my job, not be crippled with debt, and most importantly that our irrepressible Henry is with us today. I don’t want our experience to be the exception, it should be the rule.

SGB and Henry

 

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Equal Pay and Economic Security

Today is Equal Pay Day. Advocates around the country are raising the voices of women and fighting against the brutal reality that women still earn only 78 cents of every dollar earned by men. This alone sounds atrocious – imagine what that means over a woman’s lifetime and into her retirement!

According to the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee report, Large Gender Pay Gap for Older Workers Threatens Economic Security of Older Women, “in 2009, full-time working women 50 and older earned only three-fourths of what full-time working men the same age earned.”  In addition, WOW’s research shows that 49 percent of retired women ages 65 and older versus 40% of retired men in the same cohort experience economic insecurity. This suggests that the pay gap during working years translates to economic security during retirement. As a mature female worker, it makes me worry about having enough saved for retirement.

The AAUW’s report, The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap, states that white women were paid 78 percent of what white men are paid, African American women were paid 64 percent of what white men were paid and Hispanic and Latina women  were paid 54 percent of what white men.  Earning lower pay throughout one’s career affects not only salary, but your Social Security and retirement income. There is less money to pay for food and other household expenses including education, childcare and retirement savings. As a retiree, your fixed income will be smaller, Social Security will be less and investments fewer and of lower value. Women’s longer life expectancies also result in an increased chance of prematurely depleting all finances, outliving retirement savings and being unable to be economically secure and age with dignity.

Unequal pay during working years affects all women –especially minority women– and their families and can lead to elder economic insecurity during their retirement years. Equal and fair pay eliminates wage disparities and helps reduce poverty rates. Equal Pay + Fair Pay = A Strong Economy.  

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Part of the Solution to End the Wage Gap: Eliminate Occupational Segregation by Gender

I’ll be joining with my colleagues and tradeswomen friends at Chicago Women in Trades later today to meet with the Deputy Secretary of Labor to discuss Equal Pay Day. But please don’t wish me Happy Equal Pay Day! There is nothing to celebrate about the gender wage gap—it continues to be an unfortunate reality of our labor market. Nonetheless, I am grateful for a day that calls awareness to this unconscionable inequity. Moreover, I’m appreciative for the opportunity to urge the Department of Labor to pay more attention and commit resources to one significant way to eliminate the wage gap – by ending occupational segregation by gender. It is a solution/strategy embodied in the stories of the tradeswomen he’ll meet and it’s my own story too – and why it has been my passion and career for over thirty years.
When I made my first steps into the labor market thirty five years ago as an official college dropout, I didn’t have any specific data about the wage gap. However, I did know that it wasn’t going to be easy to support myself in either of the two jobs I had ever done- as a waitress or as a temporary census worker for the government. These traditionally female jobs offer low wages and no employment benefits. And I knew that men’s jobs (when I was growing up we knew there were men’s and women’s jobs because up until 1973 that’s how the help wanted ads were segregated), especially those that were union, might offer more promise for economic independence and security. It was in my search for one of those good union jobs, that I heard about the Chicago Urban League’s program to train women and men of color for jobs in the steel mills. I enrolled and one day the trainer invited me to consider applying to be an elevator constructor. This wasn’t just good fortune shining down on me – no, it was the result of a newly awarded federal contract that required the contractor to take affirmative action to truly open jobs for women and men of color – which then meant actually hiring someone – not just demonstrating good faith efforts to hire.
When that door opened to me (well it didn’t really open, I had to do some kicking – but that’s another story), I was immediately on equal footing – at least in terms of wages, with all my male colleagues. I didn’t know then how much that opportunity and choice could mean over the course of a lifetime. The difference between the wages I might have made if I stayed a waitress, versus the wages I earned as an elevator constructor could top one million dollars. And wage equality is only the first rung of the ladder – it doesn’t take into account the free on-the-job training I received, the health insurance benefits and the pension contributions that nearly doubled the total wage. Not to mention that all of that economic advantage set me up to be able to own my own home, live in the neighborhood of my choosing, help support family members, and build equity and assets that contribute to my economic security.
My experience working in the trades fixing, maintaining and building elevators and escalators, which for the most part I loved, eventually led to the work I do now – advocating and organizing so tradeswomen could get equal treatment beyond just the wages on the job and so more women would find the doors to these careers open to them. I never expected to make a career of this – nor did I think we’d still be fighting for wage equality all these years. The older I get the more ridiculous this seems, especially since the tradeswomen’s movement has been making some pretty good recommendations on how to end occupational segregation. So here is what I’ll be suggesting to the Assistant Secretary so we can speed up this process:
Women’s occupational segregation is built on sex stereotypes, lack of outreach and information, limited pre-vocational skill training, disparate impact of selection criteria, sex discrimination in hiring, and the challenge of being a pioneer in a male-dominated environment. These are pervasive and persistent issues, but they are not without solutions – so let’s tackle these head on by:
• Establishing and enforcing gender equity policy and practice in our job training and career and technical education systems,
• Allocating resources for preparing women and girls to be competitive candidates in jobs in traditionally male-dominated fields,
• Improving and enforcing equal employment opportunity and affirmative action policy and goals for federal contractors and for apprenticeship training,
• Offering technical assistance and training to help public institutions and industry partners make culture change to ensure gender equitable, neutral and sensitive training programs and workplaces
• We need public policy that allows all workers to have paid leave time to address family and medical needs
If you are a tradeswomen, ally or advocate, I hope you will join with me in sharing your own story and your ideas for ending occupational segregation by gender and closing the wage gap. I’ll be happy to forward to the Department of Labor and to our industry leaders. And I still hold out hope, that maybe next year I won’t have to write this blog all over again and instead I’ll be able to report on the dynamic changes the Department of Labor is implementing to end occupational segregation. But don’t just stay tuned, stand up, organize and demand women’s wage equality now.

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Promoting Women’s Economic Security: Acknowledging the Effects of Trauma

Since its inception in 1964, Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) has helped women create pathways and overcome barriers to economic security through direct services and advocacy driven by research. Our roots are grounded in providing job training and workforce development through a gender lens. While we now primarily use this expertise to provide technical assistance and training to organizations across the country, we still maintain connections with some local service providers here in Washington, DC.

In 2008, we began a partnership with the District Alliance for Safe Housing (DASH), which provides emergency and long-term safe housing, and innovative homelessness prevention services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. WOW provides career and economic counseling to survivors in their programs. While the physical and health impacts of abuse were apparent, the economic impacts of abuse often proved to be more of a barrier to their safety and recovery. Many of the survivors we work with faced a number of economic consequences as a result of their abuser’s actions including:

  • Job loss or lost wages due to interference from the abuser at work or time off to recover from abuse;
  • Unfinished education due to missed classes or a need to relocate;
  • Eviction and damaged tenant history due to law enforcement involvement;
  • Debt from healthcare, relocation costs and replacing damaged property;
  • Damaged credit and identity theft;
  • Loss of personal property; and,
  • Coercion into crime such as dealing drugs, fraud and/or prostitution.

By deliberately destroying survivors’ ability to be economically secure, abusers often eliminate the very resources they need to escape abuse and recover. The survivors we serve are lucky in the sense that they were able to enter a transitional housing program that provides them with safety and stability while working to rebuild their lives. Those who can’t access the limited resources available to survivors are often unable to break free from violence and abuse. But even when survivors do find these programs, the economic impacts of abuse may be so significant that they may never fully recover without the right interventions.

Providing immediate safety is first and foremost. But providing safe housing is not enough. Survivors need health and counseling services to help them cope with trauma. Once physical and mental health needs are addressed, we can then begin the long process of helping survivors recover from the economic impacts of abuse. Only then are survivors ready to develop and implement a plan that will help them become more economically secure and independent in the future. This often requires rebuilding damaged credit, getting training or education so that they have the skill-set needed to obtain good jobs that pay a living wage and offers benefits, accessing income support to provide interim stability and getting restitution to recover financial losses. Temporary and flexible financial support is critically important. Few jobs pay wages that would enable a single worker with children to cover all their monthly expenses, and those that do require years of training or experience. This reality often leaves survivors with few options but to remain in an abusive situation.

The economic consequences of violence and abuse are significant and complex. If we are to effectively promote women’s economic security, we must take into account and address the impacts of violence against women. When one in four women experiences rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, addressing the intersections of violence/abuse with economic security must be a priority for all organizations seeking to eradicate poverty and promote gender equity.

 

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