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Panel discussion to focus on women’s issues in General Assembly

A panel will discuss key women's issues in the 2021 Maryland General Assembly as part of the Women's Legislative Summit on Feb. 22. Panelists include from left, Sen. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City); Dortothy Lennig, House of Ruth; moderator Caryn York, Job Opportunity Task Force; and Del. Brenda Thiam (R-Washington county).(Submitted & file photos)

A panel will discuss key women’s issues in the 2021 Maryland General Assembly as part of the Women’s Legislative Summit on Feb. 22. Panelists include from left, Sen. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City); Dorothy Lennig, House of Ruth; moderator Caryn York, Job Opportunity Task Force; and Del. Brenda Thiam (R-Washington county). (Submitted & file photos)

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone. But women, especially women of color, have been one of the hardest-hit groups.

Legislators and advocates are aiming to address some of the issues exacerbated by the pandemic during the current General Assembly. The Daily Record will be hosting an online panel discussion Feb. 22 at 5 p.m. entitled “Women Who Lead: Bills affecting women in the Maryland Legislature.” Some of the topics the panel will discuss include essential workers who can not work remotely, low-wage workers, lack of access for sick days and leave and legal services struggles.

Learn more about the event and reserve your spot for the online event here.

As of press time, the panel included Dorothy Lennig, House of Ruth Legal Clinic Director; Sen. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore city); Del. Brenda Thiam (R-Washington); and will be moderated by Caryn York, CEO of the Job Opportunities Task Force.

Dealing with and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the key issues being addressed during the legislative session. There are several women-focused issues members are looking at during the session.

Helping those that need it most

Lennig said she is watching two bills in the General Assembly. The Maryland Legal Services Corporation gives grants to nonprofit organizations that provide civil legal services to low-income state residents. Their funding comes from several places including a legal filing fee surcharge, interest on lawyer’s trust accounts and the state’s abandoned property fund.

“We know that interest rates are almost at zero so that money has dropped off dramatically,” she said. “There were so many fewer court filings this year. There was only a limited amount of court activity so that number dropped way off.”

The bills include one to raise the filing fees with more money going to Maryland Legal Services and the other aims to increase the amount that they get from the abandoned property fund.

“If we could pass both of those, it would really provide the public interest legal service providers with a stable source of funding through Maryland Legal Services Corporation,” Lennig said.

The nonprofit, which represents domestic violence survivors, has noticed court proceedings such as protective and peace orders taking longer to be heard.

“They are setting them further out because they want fewer people in the courtroom,” she said. “Before COVID, you could have 50 protective order cases in a courtroom but now because of spacing and social distancing they only want a certain number of people in the courtroom. In some jurisdictions, they are just setting them further out so that they can have fewer people there.”

Leaving an abusive situation is always difficult but COVID made the experience even more trying. Some thought the courts were closed during the first lockdown in March. Others wanted to leave their situations but didn’t know where to go because they were afraid of exposure to the virus. Some survivors didn’t want to call the police because they feared their partner would go to jail, get exposed to the virus and bring it back home.

“In every direction that (a survivor) went to look, there was something that added to the difficulty of it because of the pandemic,” Lennig said. “People felt like they weren’t supposed to leave their homes so they ended up putting up with more abuse rather than the potential of getting infected with the coronavirus.”

The nonprofit also saw judges in protective order cases, who normally would have ordered the abuser to vacate, now allowed the abuser to stay because their job had them working from home.

“You also saw an awful lot of women who normally were working, who were now trying to work and take care of their kids and try to teach them and get them on to their computers,” she said. “… I think an awful lot of that fell on women.”

Lennig hopes those that attend the panel discussion take away an understanding that they are not alone.

“I think one of the hard parts of the pandemic for people has been the isolation,” she said. “Almost everybody is experiencing some level of discomfort as a result of it and different people are impacted differently. We should really try to understand how each of us is navigating it. For people who need legal services as a result of it, there are resources and we want to help get people connected to them.”

Focus on essential workers

Sen. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore city) will be a panelist as well.

“I am working with colleagues in the Senate on packages of legislation that are going to uplift people in various ways because people have been affected every kind of way (by the pandemic),” she said. “I have a couple of bills I am sponsoring that deal with rent and evictions and hope to alleviate some of the strain there.”

Speaking to Carter shortly after the 90-day session began, she and her staff were in the process of putting together bills to address such areas as reforms in criminal justice, police and juvenile justice. She was also working on a bill to help front-line workers receive workers’ compensation if they are eligible and were working during the pandemic.

York will serve as the panel’s moderator. She noted that during the pandemic there has been a focus on essential workers. These individuals were not able to work remotely, but were least likely to have access to many of the supports that others benefit from regularly.

“You found that many of the essential workers were overwhelmingly women and overwhelmingly women of color,” she said. “Many folks started to identify the pandemic and the economic devastation that resulted from the pandemic as the ‘Shecession’ and that really spoke to the fact that this recession had a particular impact on women workers, on women business leaders and there needs to be a particular focus on how do we mitigate the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on women,” York said.

Before the pandemic began, York notes there were already structural inequities that were specific to women of color that were being discussed such as policies that criminalized poor individuals and particularly Black individuals. Folks were talking about the need to reform the pre-trial system.

“We found that the pandemic has exasperated those structural inequities to a point where we don’t have a choice but to be targeted and intensional,” York said. “How do we ensure that women, who in Maryland represent over 80 percent of the primary breadwinners in households, how do we make sure that those structural inequities that were already present and existing and have been exacerbated do not continue to get worse or be even more pronounced particularly for women of color.”

JOTF’s mission is to help low wage workers advance to high wage jobs.

“For the past 25 years, we have always focused on and pushed for policies that would eliminate the barriers that relegate so many Marylanders to low wage worker status,” York said. “We were already fighting for these things. Now you get a pandemic that results in massive job loss. Individuals are struggling to buy food, struggling to ensure their rental payments are on time. But also struggling to be able to keep up with their bills. These aren’t new issues but they were further exacerbated by the pandemic because we saw what was happening to businesses because we saw what was happening to workers. In the midst of all of this, as is the case with anything of devastation that happens, it falls disproportionally on our most vulnerable workers who tend to be our low wage workers and workers of color.”

While many policymakers are discussing how to help businesses, York hopes that the General Assembly will remember to include workers in their aide.

“This isn’t to say that business does not need help,” she said. “They absolutely do. They are going to be the ones to hire. But the focus can’t be so much on business that it is at the expense of workers. …We don’t really see any leadership or any targeted focus on how do we start to eliminate many of these barriers, many of these policies that were already in existence prior to the pandemic but are now harming families in greater force. Equal importance must be given to the worker that is given to the business.”

Women Who Lead This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Women Who Lead: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Women Who Lead (formerly Path to Excellence) magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Women Who Lead.

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