Michaud: Worthy measures for women are held hostage by abortion issue

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo's 10-point package of reforms of

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's 10-point package of reforms of laws for women has general support, except for a provision on abortion laws. Photo Credit: iStock

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Anne Michaud Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Anne Michaud

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion. She has written about politics, government, education and transportation

If you paid attention to New York State government once a year -- say, during the agenda-setting State of the State speech, live from Albany -- you might wonder what happened to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's women's agenda.

In his 2013 address, the 10-point Women's Equality Act received significant emphasis. He paired his call to action with a photo of his three daughters and shouted over heavy applause, "It is not a man's world in New York. Not anymore."

Wednesday, the measure was made to wait in line until the end of his to-do list, trailing even the New York State Yogurt Summit.

Last year, the rollout of a progressive women's agenda stirred speculation that Cuomo wanted to broaden his appeal to run for president in 2016. So what happened?

Probably, our pragmatic governor recognizes that the abortion-rights portion of the bill, which was radioactive to State Senate Republicans last year, has become kryptonite as the legislature heads for re-election in November.

That's a shame, because this series of proposed legal changes has substance. The Assembly and Senate should consider passing the nine points on which they agree.

One measure would amend state labor law to make it illegal to pay women less for the same work men perform. Employers would have to show that pay differences are based on education, training or experience. This state bill has the same intent as the federal Paycheck Fairness Act being championed in Congress by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), among others.

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Are women paid less for the same work? Lily Ledbetter, a manager at Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Alabama, certainly was -- and she could prove it, but not in time to meet a requirement of the U.S. Supreme Court. Her lawsuit spurred Congress to loosen the statute of limitations on discrimination claims.

Many workers can't even compare salaries because employers discourage sharing that information. The New York bill would ban wage secrecy, too.

Another of the 10 points would protect pregnant women from being pushed out of jobs -- or being made to go on unpaid leave -- when they request a modest, temporary accommodation, like more frequent bathroom breaks or to refrain from heavy lifting. According to the coalition backing this legislation, women in low-wage jobs suffer most from this problem.

Also included are legal protections for human trafficking survivors, who are often charged with crimes related to prostitution. Instead, in many cases, this bill would make them eligible for assistance through state welfare, domestic violence and victims' services agencies. And pimps and patrons would face greater penalties.

Another measure would allow video testimony for restraining-order cases, so that domestic violence victims don't have to face abusers in court. The bill also would make it illegal for landlords to turn away tenants on the grounds that they have been victims of domestic violence.

The legislation would extend sexual harassment law to employers with fewer than four workers. Currently, small businesses are exempt, yet they make up nearly 60 percent of private workplaces.

All of these measures, except for strengthening the state's abortion law, passed the Assembly and Senate last year. But none will become law unless the two houses have identical bills.

A group of female Assembly members has vowed to keep the 10-point package intact. But in an election year, it's probably a losing play to continue to wrap abortion in motherhood and apple pie.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.

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