Labor Day 2023: a time to reflect on creating an equal workforce for all

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau will continue working to improve the status of working women and their families by focusing on better wages and working conditions in key sectors, Midwest Regional Administrator Gina Rodriguez writes.

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Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton (fifth from left) and Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Julie Su (center) are surrounded by women who work in the trades after the announcement of a grant to help build equity and inclusion in construction industry jobs.

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton (fifth from left) and Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Julie Su (center) are surrounded by women who work in the trades after the announcement of a grant to help build equity and inclusion in construction industry jobs.

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This Labor Day, we must acknowledge investments in workforce training are vital to meeting employers’ demands for skilled labor and to creating sustainable, middle-class jobs for all. That includes people who have historically been left behind by public infrastructure investment.

While women make up nearly half of the nation’s workforce and the labor force participation rate of women ages 25-54 is at an all-time high, women are still disproportionally stuck in low-wage jobs. Too often, they can’t access quality jobs that provide economic security to them and their families.

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Since 1920, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau has worked hard to address barriers that keep women from equal opportunities and success in the workforce. Today, the Biden administration is applying a cross-agency, worker-centered approach designed to build an economy that works for everyone.

In the Chicago area, community-based organizations like Chicago Women in Trades, which has received grants from the Women’s Bureau, offer training paths to the building trades, just as funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is creating quality union infrastructure jobs in Chicago and the surrounding areas.

The state of Illinois estimates that over the next six years as much as $40 billion will be spent on construction. To ensure these highly paid, union jobs are accessible to all — including women and people of color, who are all too often underrepresented on public works projects — we need the expertise of organizations like Chicago Women in Trades and buy-in from state and local officials.

Fortunately, we have that in Illinois. Recently, Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Julie Su and Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced an award of a $1.3 million grant to the Illinois Department of Labor, of which CWIT will be a sub-grantee, to help build equity into the implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law investments and increase women’s inclusion and equity in construction industry jobs. Funds also will allow Illinois to evaluate state and local workforce development programs for diversifying the clean energy and construction workforce.

But efforts toward workforce equity don’t stop there. I’m proud that Chicago is leading the nation in the fight against gender-based violence and human trafficking, including at work. In 2022, Chicago passed an ordinance prohibiting sexual harassment within city limits and requiring all Chicago employers to provide managers with anti-harassment training and workers with bystander intervention training. The city also has partnered with Futures Without Violence to enhance its ability to respond to gender-based violence and human trafficking in the workplace.

Illinois leads in giving workers paid time off

Illinois has been a leader in recognizing that care work is also infrastructure. Workers can’t get to their job sites without safe, functional roads and bridges, and they can’t keep their jobs if they are not able to access care for themselves and their families. Since 2017, people working in Chicago and Cook County have had a guaranteed right to paid sick time. In 2023, Illinois passed a law guaranteeing qualified workers up to 40 hours of paid time off annually, which 1.5 million workers will begin earning in 2024.

As progress is made and our workplaces evolve, more changes are still needed. For its part, the Women’s Bureau will continue working to improve the status of working women and their families by focusing on better wages and working conditions in key sectors and leading more women toward pathways to good jobs.

We will also seek expanded access to paid leave and sick days and to affordable childcare and elder care, which remains a major obstacle to employment equity. Here in Cook County, the average family must spend nearly one-fifth of their household income just to send one infant child to a child care center.

As the nation commemorates another Labor Day, we should also remember a 21st-century workforce can only be successful if everyone benefits. Together, we can ensure that all people share in our nation’s continued economic growth. When families succeed, communities thrive and the nation prospers overall.

Gina Rodriguez is the Midwest regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau.

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