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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"Agenda for Women's Health" gets support in Pittsburgh, but faces tough fight in Harrisburg

Posted By on Tue, Mar 25, 2014 at 2:31 PM

This morning, Pittsburgh City Council took a vote in support of the "Pennsylvania Agenda for Women's Health," a sweeping package of proposed legislation that backers hope the state legislature will take up over the following months. Council urged Harrisburg to act on the agenda in a unanimous voice vote ... but legislators in the Capitol are likely to be far more divided.

The agenda's nearly two dozen items, most of which have not been formally introduced in Harrisburg, cover a wide range of proposals. They include: establishing Pittsburgh-style "buffer zones" to keep anti-choice protesters away from the entrances to family-planning clinics; easing restrictions and requirements on welfare recipients; and requiring employers to provide space and time for mothers to pump breast milk in private. Some items — like efforts to make voting easier and a proposed statewide minimum wage hike to $9 an hour — aren't gender-specific, though women are disproportionately likely to be earning the minimum wage.(More on the agenda can be found here.)

The agenda, said state Rep. Erin Molchany during a morning press conference hosted by City Councilor Dan Gilman, is "not just about physical health or reproductive health ... This is about making sure Pennsylvania's women are healthy on so many levels."

"We're talking about a common-sense agenda," said Gilman. "This is not a radical agenda."

But early signs suggest that even common-sense bills may face tough sledding in Harrisburg.

Take the case of House Bill 1796, a measure that would prohibit women from being evicted from apartments for calling 9-1-1 due to domestic disturbances.

The bill is part of the women's health package, even though you might think such a measure would seem unnecessary: Who would evict a woman for protecting herself from abuse? But the bill is an effort to address an unintended consequence of legislation passed on the local level: In recent years, municipalities have passed "disruptive property" ordinances that allow landlords to be cited if police are called to a home too often. The law was intended to go after drug offenders and similarly disruptive neighbors, but it has resulted in women fearing eviction if they complain about an abusive boyfriend. (While Pittsburgh has a disruptive-properties ordinance of its own, it exempts domestic-abuse calls.) On paper, HB 1796 would seem to offer something for politicians all along the spectrum: It could remove some of the burden weighing down a battered spouse or partner, while also curtailing the heavy hand of government regulation. And the measure received unanimous support in a January House vote.

But then the bill moved over to the Senate, where things went haywire. After the bill was reported to the Local Government Committee, Republicans added a new provision. The new version of the bill now contains a provision that precludes local governments from "requiring an employer to provide an employee ... with vacation or other forms of leave ... that [are] not required by federal or state law."

If you're wondering what that has to do with protecting people in abusive relationships from being put on the street, the answer is "nothing." But Republicans have grown concerned over local efforts, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, to impose sick-leave requirements on local employers. And as state Senator Matt Smith (D-South Hills) put it at this morning's press conference, they used HB 1796 "as an opportunity to get something else into the bargain" — language to pre-empt such local ordinances. As a result, what was a bill with bipartisan — even universal — appeal has become politicized. The amended bill passed in a straight party-line vote, with Democrats opposed. It is now pending in the Seante.

Smith expressed hope that the amendments could be stripped back out, and said that if the legislature did so, HB 1796 would likely become law in short order. And another Women's Health Agenda item is to pass paid sick-leave requirements statewide, which may reduce the desire of local municipalities to take the matter in their own hands. (Some parts of the agenda will be rolled out in early May, supporters say, with more legislation to come perhaps by early fall.) But in the meantime, Gilman lamented, "We are literally playing politics with people's lives."

Council's vote today in support of the state reforms was non-binding, but Gilman says that down the road, "We're looking at potentially doing local ordinances on some of these." Philadelphia already has expanded protections for women in several areas by, for example, extending anti-discrimination laws to cover domestic workers (who are exempt from state law).

Of course, Pittsburgh could be barred from passing such reforms if the state does pass laws stripping local governments of the power to do so. Which means women's health supporters might want to add one more item to the legislature's to-do list: not actively making things worse.

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