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Women’s rights take center stage in the General Assembly

Michelle Siri, executive director of the Women’s Law Center of Maryland.

What’s good for women is good for Maryland families and, thus, for Maryland. That’s the thinking of Michelle Daugherty Siri, executive director of the Women’s Law Center of Maryland.

While the organization has advocated for women for half a century, this year is especially important, as women’s rights take center stage in the legislative session in Annapolis.

Siri calls this a watershed moment. The pandemic spotlighted – and exacerbated – longtime inequities, with women’s rights “under attack across the country,” she said.

“Working women in Maryland are at a breaking point right now,” Siri said.

While men have recouped all jobs lost during the pandemic, at least a million fewer women were in the labor force nationwide this past January compared to February 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We can tie that directly to school and day care closures and a lack of paid family leave,” Siri said. “If we do not want to set those working women back decades, we need to catch up to the rest of the world and establish a paid family and medical leave program.”

According to the Maryland Family Network, only 17% of workers have access to paid family leave and fewer than 40% have paid personal leave for short-term disabilities.

This is not the first time Maryland lawmakers have debated paid family leave. For close to a decade, lawmakers have created working groups and commissioned studies, yet a family leave bill has not passed.

This year’s bill — the Time to Care Act of 2022 — has gained traction as the pandemic exposed the precarious situation of many workers. The bill would establish a family and medical leave insurance program allowing workers to take paid leave after the birth, adoption or guardianship of a child, or to care for themselves or a family member after a serious health issue.

Each chamber has moved forward with its own version of the legislation. The state Senate preliminarily approved a measure to provide up to 24 weeks of paid leave per year, with wages partially replaced, while the House moved to establish a commission to work out the specifics of a program.

Bill opponents say a state-mandated paid family leave program would be too expensive and would burden small businesses.

Siri disagrees.

“The cost of staff turnover, recruitment and training is exponentially higher when there is no paid leave in place,” she said. “The insurance program proposed in Maryland would distribute the cost equitably through small paycheck deductions, like our current unemployment system.”

Abortion rights

With Republican lawmakers introducing bills to restrict women’s access to abortion in Maryland, House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) sponsored legislation to allow voters to decide whether to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. That bill died when the Senate refused to vote for the amendment as well.

“We cannot take for granted that those rights could not at some point be stripped, not when so much is at stake,” Siri said. “The constitutional amendment championed by Speaker Jones would be the strongest protection we could provide to ensure future generations of Marylanders have meaningful access to the full range of reproductive health care, from birth control to infertility treatments to abortion.”

Without full access, Siri said, reproductive freedom is meaningless. She pointed out that two-thirds of Maryland counties do not have a single abortion provider and said that, with increasing restrictions in neighboring states, Maryland will see an influx of patients seeking abortions.

Del. Ariana Kelly, D-Montgomery, and Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, are sponsoring the Abortion Care Access Act, which would allow nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and physician assistants to perform abortions and create a program to train medical professionals. The bill would also require insurance companies to cover the procedure.

“Both steps are critical to ensuring women in Maryland not only have the right to an abortion, but also have meaningful access to one when and where they need one,” Siri said. “Abortion access should not be dependent on ZIP code or insurance status. It is no longer enough for Maryland to be just pro-choice.”

If the bills do not pass, Siri said, she anticipates more delays for patients seeking reproductive health care, especially low-income and marginalized women.

Siri said that the women’s rights laws proposed this legislative session are connected.

“Women cannot have bodily autonomy unless they have physical safety. They cannot have physical safety without economic security. And they cannot have economic security without bodily autonomy,” Siri said. “For those reasons, I think the Abortion Care Access Act and the Time to Care Act are the most critical pieces of legislation we are advocating for this year.”

Concluded Siri: “If not now, then when?”

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