In his bid to become Maryland’s next governor, former U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. (D) and his running mate Michelle Siri are releasing a plan on how their administration would attempt to build economic opportunities for women — by prioritizing paid family leave, affordable child care and a higher minimum wage.
They are presenting their plan a month after Siri, a women’s rights advocate and the executive director for The Women’s Law Center of Maryland, joined the campaign.
“While we’ve been seeing some gains in the economy, we have not seen it catch up yet for women,” Siri said in an interview. “The priorities are going to have to be bringing women back into the workforce.”
Paid Family Leave
Siri said an “emergency issue” is ensuring that Marylanders have at least 12 weeks of paid family leave following the birth or adoption of a child, or to provide care for themselves or a family member.
The lack of a statewide family leave policy disproportionately affects women, who shoulder most caregiving responsibilities, Siri said.
Some Marylanders have protected unpaid leave through federal law, but that may mean they have to burn through their savings or return to work as quickly as possible to get back on the payroll. “It’s just a vicious cycle,” Siri said.
When Siri gave birth to her first son, while she was a young attorney in private practice, she said she was taken off the partnership track and denied her bonus that year.
“It really was a wakeup call for me about how those issues are still a challenge for so many women,” she said.
Paid leave would allow more women to return to work, retain high earning levels and curtail the “leaky pipeline of talent” that women often fall into due to family obligations, King and Siri said.
“The first bill I want to sign is paid family leave,” King said in an interview.
But lawmakers could take some wind out of their sails. For the fourth year, lawmakers are pushing for legislation that would give all Marylanders 12 weeks of paid family leave. The bill did not get a vote out of committee last year.
Affordable Child Care
The campaign said they would implement early childhood policies that save a “typical family” $8,000 a year, including by capping family contributions to the state’s child care scholarship program at 7% of income and raising the state’s income eligibility cap for child care scholarships up to 100% of the state’s median income.
The campaign would expand on recently passed education reforms by establishing universal pre-K by 2030 at no cost to families. The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education reform bill mandates the expansion of pre-K, but would require family payments for children from middle- and higher-income households.
Since the pandemic hit the state in March 2020, Maryland has lost 751 child care providers. One of the biggest challenges facing Maryland’s child care system is finding qualified people to hire. The median wage for child care workers in Maryland is $11.59 an hour, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.
King’s administration would try to drive up the wages of child care workers, who are disproportionately women of color, by raising rates governed by state contracts or regulation.
Gender Wage Gap
King and Siri said they would seek to accelerate Maryland’s transition to a $15 minimum wage, promising to reach that benchmark by 2023; current law requires most state minimum wages to hit $15 by 2025.
The campaign also supports an unspecified increase in the minimum wage for tipped workers — currently set at $3.63 per hour — and automatic minimum wage increases to keep pace with inflation and rising costs.
In 2016, Maryland lawmakers passed an equal pay law, which Siri advocated, that precludes employers from retaliating against workers who discuss their salaries and allows former workers to sue over pay discrimination for up to three years after their last paycheck.
“But we know especially after the past two years that there is still a lot of room there,” Siri said. Women in Maryland earn 89 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.
Women in the Workplace
King and Siri also proposed extending legal protections against sexual harassment to all employees, including unpaid interns, and allowing offenders to be held personally liable in court.
Expanding state programs like Maryland’s Office of Small, Minority and Women Business Affairs and creating a state bank to make it easier for female small business owners to access capital are also among the campaign’s priorities.
Meeting Basic Needs
King and Siri also plan to expand the earned income tax credit — which gives tax breaks to low- and moderate- income workers and is widely viewed as an effective anti-poverty tool — to taxpayers without social security numbers.
The budget that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) introduced last month includes permanently extending the billion-dollar RELIEF Act passed by the General Assembly last year that expanded earned income and child tax credits.
“When we win, it will be clear to folks that that means family leave is coming, that means accelerating the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation is coming. It means universal quality childcare is coming,” King said. “Folks will understand that we’re going to deliver on the progressive agenda that we’re describing throughout the campaign.”