Sixty percent of Maine women are employed outside the home, including nearly three out of every four mothers, but the state’s economic policies seem to be stuck in a time when women stayed at home and raised a family and only men went to work.

Little or no allowance is made for the fact that workers get sick, need to take care of other family members or may be the sole or primary support of their household. A higher minimum wage could be up for a U.S. Senate vote as soon as next week, but Maine should have its own action plan for raising the hourly state minimum and taking other key steps to ensure that the women who live and work here have the economic security that they deserve.

Maine women face a number of obstacles as they try to meet their everyday expenses — food, clothing, housing, medical care — while still saving for long-term goals, such as a child’s education and putting aside money for emergencies. Our state’s minimum wage is $7.50 per hour. A full-time worker earning the minimum makes just $15,600 per year before taxes — less than half the living wage for a single adult who has no children, and only a quarter of the living wage for a single parent of two. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, Maine’s minimum wage is less than it was in the 1970s.

The hourly minimum in our state hasn’t been raised in five years, and Maine’s women bear the brunt of this inaction. More than 60 percent of minimum-wage workers here are women, most of whom are the only wage earners in their household. If Maine raised this wage to at least $9.50 per hour and adjusted it regularly to account for inflation, it would bring full-time workers above the poverty level for a family of three, help them better provide for their families and lessen their dependence on government assistance.

The women in Maine’s workforce also are juggling job demands with responsibilities at home, whether as new parents or as caregivers to elderly family members. Though the Family Medical Leave Act requires businesses of a certain size to provide unpaid time off in these circumstances, a lot of people can’t afford to forgo a paycheck. Creating a state-administered leave program funded by nominal employee-only payroll deductions keeps new moms and family caregivers in the labor force; they’re not forced to quit and then try to go back to work, risking a cycle of economic insecurity if they can’t find another job. And employers benefit from not having to look for and train new workers.

Having paid time off when they’re sick would be another advance for many Maine women. More than 80 percent of low-wage earners in the United States don’t have paid sick days. And because these workers are predominantly women with jobs that require frequent public contact, such as salesclerks, wait staff and day care workers, they’re likely to infect others when they go to work when they are ill.

Opponents of a higher minimum wage, paid family leave and paid sick days will say that these measures will make Maine less business-friendly. But a growing number of other states and cities have adopted these policies and can serve as a model for doing so successfully. Working women in Maine contribute a great deal to the stability and growth of Maine’s businesses. It’s time for policymakers to return the favor.

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