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March 8, the day this column will be published, is International Women's Day. And April 2 is Equal Pay Day. It's a symbolic date that illustrates how far into the year women must work in order to earn what men earned the previous year. This awareness-raising day is designed to draw attention to the gender pay gap: Across the United States, the median annual pay of women who work full-time, year-round is about 80 percent of men's median earnings. The gap is a bit smaller in Vermont, where women earn 86 cents on the dollar compared to men.

According to the nonpartisan American Association of University Women, a nonprofit that promotes equity and education for women and girls, "many factors contribute to the size of the gender pay gap, [including] reduced hours worked because of time spent on domestic work and care work, [and] reduced job tenure resulting from breaks in labor-force participation to raise children."

In other words, many women earn less because they work fewer hours, leave the workforce, or take lower-paying jobs with flexible schedules so they can care for their children or other family members. It's a familiar economic scenario—the "mommy track"—and it has cascading consequences: When women take time off to raise their children, their career takes a hit. They may have a tough time re-entering the job market, or they may return to lower-paying jobs. Either way, this translates to lower lifetime earnings, less savings, and less financial stability for the family.

Two bills working their way through the statehouse would help keep Vermont's working moms, and families in general, on a more stable track.

As introduced, H.107 (Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance) would establish a statewide insurance program financed through a 0.93 percent payroll tax, with the cost split equally between employers and employees. The program would cover up to 12 weeks of leave, at 100 percent pay, to help every Vermont worker navigate life circumstances like maternity or paternity leave, serious illness, or taking care of an elderly parent. As of early March, the House Ways and Means Committee was taking a hard look at how to make this program financially sustainable.

Options include changing the payroll tax percentage, reducing the amount of time off or the level of pay provided, or making the program voluntary rather than universal.

I believe paid family leave would be a game-changer for families and a powerful recruitment and retention tool for Vermont businesses. Main Street Alliance, a nonprofit that works on public policy issues that impact Vermont's small-business owners, has some good resources if you'd like to learn more about this bill:

H.194 is one of several bills that would increase access to high quality, affordable childcare across Vermont—a high priority for the legislature this year. It would expand the Child Care Financial Assistance Program, which helps income-eligible families with the cost of childcare through direct subsidies to the provider. It also would support early-learning professionals, who often earn low wages, by providing scholarships, tax credits and student loan repayment.

Meanwhile, the legislature has commissioned an independent study on Act 166, which in 2014 established universal publicly funded Pre-K education (10 hours per week for 3- and 4-year-olds).

The final study, due in July 2019, will examine how the program is working and suggest solutions to its implementation challenges. I'll be following this study closely and looking to apply lessons learned from our own Taconic & Green Regional School District, where parents and administrators are working hard to find an equitable Pre-K solution for next year.

I'm a co-sponsor of both H.107 and H.194. Like every working mom I know, I struggled for years to balance family and career, raising two daughters while holding down a full-time job. At every turn, I've traded money (earning less of it) for time (gaining more of it). By supporting Vermont workers through paid family leave and expanded childcare, here's hoping we can make those choices easier.

Rep. Kathleen James is a Democrat who represents the Bennington-4 district serving Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate and part of Sunderland. You can reach her by email at KJames


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