[dropcap]S[/dropcap]helby Ramirez recently celebrated her fiftieth birthday and got engaged. Like many women in Colorado Ramirez is a mother — of two grown women; a daughter — she takes care of her 67-year-old father; and a low-wage worker. As the 2014 legislative session whirls to a close, Ramirez reflected on how this year’s legislation might affect her and other women across the state.
Despite not snagging as many headlines as last session’s civil unions, gun control measures and in-state college tuition for undocumented students, voices from all corners of women’s advocacy in the state have called the 2014 session a historically good one for women. Perhaps for the first time since the Great Recession, the state had some serious cash to invest in everything from child care, to pro bono lawyers for victims of domestic abuse, to Medicaid with family planning and did so under the direction of the first Latina chair of the Joint Budget Committee, Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver.
“There’s been huge victories for women in the state budget, particularly women who are trying to balance both a personal family life with a career,” said Duran.
In addition to caring for her daughters and elderly father, Ramirez has worked for just over minimum wage at a hotel in downtown Denver for the past five years. During that inarguably tricky economic era, despite working full time, she has received just one state-mandated, 23-cent raise.
Ramirez moved into her current apartment when she started her job downtown. Her rent was $735 a month. Today, it’s nearly $1,000. Her rent is just one of many costs from insurance premiums and doctor’s copays to gas and groceries that Ramirez says has her hard-pressed to keep afloat.
“You become stuck in this vicious, struggling cycle day in, day out. It becomes a way of life: total struggle,” she said.
Acknowledging that the construction of affordable housing has fallen drastically since the state cut the tax credit that encouraged it in the early 2000s, lawmakers passed HB 1017 this session. Sponsored by Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster, the bill writes two affordable housing construction grant programs into state law and offers up to $20 million in tax incentives to developers of affordable housing each year.
The issue of affordable housing is crucial not just for women who head households, like Ramirez, but also for women who are struggling to extricate themselves and sometimes their children from violent situations at home.
“For many years now Colorado’s affordable housing shortage has been, and continues to be, one of the most significant barriers to safety and independence for victims of domestic violence,” said Amy Miller of the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which lobbied for HB 1017 this session.
Miller noted that without affordable housing options many women end up staying in temporary domestic violence shelters much longer. In fact the average length of stay in the state’s womens’ shelters went up 24 percent in the five years before 2012, which also means that shelters are forced to turn down as many as 10,000 requests for asylum each year.
“Sadly what we’ve see happening time and time again for many years now is that women face this false choice between being homeless and being abused,” said Miller.
Just like her efforts to care for three generations of family, Ramirez’s story expands beyond herself. She’s potently aware of how a halt in raises or little time off affects the women around her, particularly mothers of young children.
“The women I work with, their kids are home alone,” said Ramirez, adding that with the cost of child care completely beyond reach, many women feel stuck and resort to having the oldest child take care of their younger siblings.
“f you’re not paying for child care you might ask what is wrong with these young people, why do they need so much help? But it’s like try paying $1,200 a month. In many cases people are paying more for child care than for their mortgage,” said Chaer Roberts of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy.
Depending on who you ask, Colorado ranks between fifth and second in the nation for most expensive child care. With an average annual cost just over $12,000 per child, paying a professional to watch your kids in Colorado is now just as expensive as sending them to college.
“The cost of child care is a real barrier for all families but particularly for single moms. Having affordable child care helps people get into and stay in the workforce,” said Senate President Morgan Carroll of bills this session targeted towards opening up child care for the state’s poorest, working families.
Included in that effort is HB 1072, which closes a loophole in the state’s child care tax credit that excludes families making less than $25,000 a year. Sponsored by Reps. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, and Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, along with Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, the law would offer those families a credit of up to $500 per child, for up to two children.
“This is one of those bills that looks gender neutral, but 60 percent of the folks who would benefit are women,” said Roberts.
Several other policies put forward this session, in addition to child care, also focus on women who are mothers.
Until this year, no clear legal procedure existed for a woman who wanted to reinstate her parental rights if she had lost them due to something like a struggle with addiction. Recently signed into law, SB 62, lays out such a pathway for parents of either gender who are able to demonstrate that they’re now able to care for their children — kids who must be older than 12 and willing to reunite with their parent.
Lawmakers also made great strides for women who suffered a rape that resulted in a child. HB 1162, an expansion on previous policy, lays out the legal framework that would allow a woman to sever the parental rights of a rapist and raise her child in peace.
“This year we added clear and convincing evidence [as cause for termination] even if there is not a conviction,” noted bill sponsor Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain.
Miller said that for this reason the Coalition Against Domestic Violence is proud of the bipartisan bill, which was also sponsored by Senate President Carroll.
“We know how few cases get reported in the first place and those numbers narrow down significantly for actual convictions,” Miller said.
The legislature is also making progress towards protecting women who are harassed using technology — specifically through a practice known as “revenge porn” wherein an ex posts intimate photos of their former partner online.
Sponsored by Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, HB 1378, criminalizes the malicious posting of an ex’s naked image on the internet with a class one misdemeanor and up to $10,000 in fines. The bill also gives the subject of an intimate picture copyright over that image. It’s a kind of poetic legal move to affirm a woman’s ownership even over the likeness of her body.
Stephens said the bill, which resembles legislation some 27 other states are also considering, is crucial for women’s emotional and physical safety, but also for their economic security.
“Often you’ll see women who can’t find a job or get fired from their job because 80 percent of employers google search their employees,” Stephens noted.
Stephens’s is not the only bill this session that looks to protect the woman as worker. The Wage Protection Act, sponsored by Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster, and Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, mandates that the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment take a wage-shorted worker’s complaint, investigate it and then work with both the employer and employee to settle the issue. All this while avoiding the need for small claims court, which dissuades most from seeking remedy for stolen wages. The bill also creates a penalty of $50 for each day employers withhold wages from their workers.
“Women are the primary or co-breadwinners in at least two thirds of families. When you add stolen wages or not getting paid full minimum wage on top of what is already unequal pay, the impact on families can be catastrophic,” explained Erin Bennett of the working women’s advocacy group 9to5 Colorado.
Even so, work remains to be done. Lawmakers bitterly debated the very idea, much less an actual bill, to raise the current minimum wage from $8 to $10. The average minimum wage worker is a 35-year-old woman.
In a similar vein, lawmakers entertained the possibility of passing a state-run family medical leave insurance program that would allow caretakers — many of whom are women — to invest a small portion of their wages in case they need to take time off to care for a sick loved one. That bill made it all the way to Appropriations before lawmakers decided there just wasn’t room left in the budget. Bennett, whose group is committed to seeing the bill pass, acknowledged that setting up such a program will take a lot of work and added that lawmakers are already preparing for a second go at the bill next session.
That’s a day Ramirez eagerly awaits. A few years ago she took two weeks of unpaid vacation when her 21-year-old daughter needed a surgery for gallstones at the same moment that her father’s severe diabetes put him at risk of going blind unless he too underwent surgery. After two weeks without pay and several trips to the hospital the family scrambled to cover the cost of prescriptions, groceries, heat and rent.
A few weeks ago Ramirez’s father had to have surgery on his eye again. Only this round Ramirez couldn’t get any more time off, not even unpaid.
“Put yourself in that situation,” said Ramirez.
“He’s elderly. He’s fragile. Imagine telling your dad to take the bus home after eye surgery. Could you tell your father that?”
[Photo by Lars Hammar]