The House voted early Saturday to approve a $1.9 trillion relief bill that will retain many of the elements women lawmakers and advocates have been fighting for for weeks, including a minimum wage increase that faces steep odds in the Senate. 

Included in the legislation is a historic expansion of the child tax credit, making it available to the poorest children; $24 billion in emergency funds for the child care industry; enhanced unemployment benefits; more than $160 billion in funding for safe school reopenings; aid for renters; and $1,400 stimulus checks. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour would stay in the House version even after the Senate parliamentarian advised late Thursday that it did not pass muster to remain in the Senate version of the package. Large swaths of a proposal to expand paid sick and family leave — a top provision for women’s advocates — were also unable to clear the parliamentarian.

Last week, a group of 15 women’s advocates gathered with Vice President Kamala Harris to set an agenda for what elements they considered to be the non-negotiables in the relief bill and build momentum going into the vote. 

Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center said Thursday night that she was “obviously disappointed” that the minimum wage is not likely to survive final passage of the pandemic legislation. She said advocates plan to press ahead on the issue, as well as on paid family leave and “building a durable caregiving infrastructure.”

A newsletter you can relate to

Storytelling that represents you, delivered to your inbox.

“The families in need of a pay increase could not care less about Senate rules,” said Graves, who attended last week’s roundtable. “We are focused on securing urgent relief for women — in unemployment insurance, child care, housing assistance, direct payments and more.”

Child tax credit

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who also participated in last week’s roundtable, said that discussion set the tone for the work women’s advocates have been doing behind the scenes this week.

“The president and vice president are champions of a child tax credit. The president and vice president are champaigns on equal pay for women and paid family and medical leave,” DeLauro said. “The strength of that is what gets you across the finish line and we have that.”  

The inclusion of the child tax credit in the final House package, especially, is seen as a major victory for low-wage mothers. DeLauro has spent 18 years fighting for an expansion of the child tax credit so that poor families can access the full amount.

The provision, which increases the amount of the tax credit to as much as $3,600, has good odds in the Senate, too, but could face changes. It’s unclear whether changing the distribution from annual to monthly will be approved by the parliamentarian, for example.  

Sen. Sherrod Brown, who has also been pushing for an expansion of the credit for years, told the Huffington Post that Democratic senators may accept fewer changes to the credit in the relief bill, and then focus on making the change permanent and monthly.  

The tax credit proposal still doesn’t go as far as DeLauro and other advocates hoped — the expansion would expire after a year. The hope, she said, is that it will be harder to roll back once families start receiving checks in the mail and that Democrats can then push for a permanent expansion. 

“I’m going to follow it and be vigilant every step of the way to make sure it isn’t watered down in any way as we move forward,” DeLauro said. 

Child care

Key for women leaders was that the package both provide immediate help and lay the groundwork for future child care policies. 

Help to the child care industry as a whole will also have to be multi-pronged, said Debra Ness, the president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, and many of those potential aids ultimately stayed in the bill. 

In addition to $24 billion to stabilize the child care industry, the relief package includes $15 billion in additional funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant Program, which provides funding for states to subsidize child care for low-income families with children under the age of 13, and about $165 billion for K-12 and higher education school reopenings to help with creating smaller class sizes, implementing social distancing guidelines and improving distance learning capabilities.  

“This is a package that really connects the dots, that really understands that women live very complex lives, and that there’s not one single policy that’s going to be the solution because we don’t live in silos,” Ness said. “You have to be able to address them as an interconnected web of policies.”

It also lays the groundwork for the fights advocates want to take up in Biden’s jobs package, which is expected to come next month. 

Activists wanted to see the paid sick and family leave policies that were first enacted as a result of the pandemic last year expanded through September 30. That would have let workers take up to 14 weeks of leave, including if they needed to care for children and could not because day cares or schools are shuttered. 

Instead, the House bill includes tax credits for businesses that offer leave to their employees, making it optional. An expanded policy would have been especially impactful for working parents, and mothers most of all, who have cut their work hours or left the labor force altogether as a result of limitations with child care. 

Now, women leaders are instead turning their sights on the next package, saying they’re confident they could reach a compromise in a later bill because paid leave has some bipartisan support.

“We’re going to move on that in the next package,” DeLauro said. 

That upcoming package, which will probably go through the typical process requiring 60 votes in the Senate, will need at least some Republican support to pass. Already, legislators and activists are pinning their hopes on that legislation and preparing for a protracted argument with Republicans to get it passed. 

Minimum wage

The effort to gradually raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 today to $15 in 2025 also now faces a significant battle in the Senate, even after the bill passes the House. The Senate is set up to take the relief package as soon as next week, but it’s still unclear what shape an amended minimum wage provision could take, if any.

Democrats are using a process called budget reconciliation to pass the current relief package, meaning it requires 50 votes to pass in the Senate — plus Harris’ tie-breaking vote — instead of 60. To use this process, everything in the package has to be determined to have a direct impact on the nation’s finances. The person who makes the determination is the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, the first woman to hold the post. MacDonough advised Thursday night that the minimum wage provision, as written, did not meet that requirement. 

Going into this week, the minimum wage provision had been far and away the most contentious piece of the relief bill and the one that women’s advocates were most united around pushing for due to its outsized impact on women workers. 

Nearly 60 percent of the 32 million workers who would benefit from the minimum wage hike are women, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. A separate analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that some 17 million workers would see their wages rise.

Women make up two-thirds of the 40 lowest-paid jobs in the country and are highly concentrated in the hospitality field, where much of the nation’s lowest wages are found. They are also every two in three tipped workers. The proposal would increase the federal tipped wage of $2.13 an hour to meet the $15 minimum by 2027.

Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said the plan is still to keep pushing on minimum wage and paid leave. She said she spent Thursday night and Friday morning trying to wrap her head around the Senate parliamentarian ruling but remains focused on keeping the pressure on senators headed into next week. 

“We have to figure out a path forward,” said Poo. “It’s essential to rescue and recovery. People need relief right now, especially women and people of color. I need the Senate to figure this out. … I know that they know this is a priority. We’re not giving up on that piece.”

But opponents argued that the increase would decimate the small businesses that would have to absorb the added costs. Many of those that are most struggling to get by during the pandemic are also owned by women and people of color. According to the CBO study, about 1.4 million workers could also lose their jobs as a result of the increase. 

Some on the left are arguing that the parliamentarian can be overruled, but the White House has already said it plans to respect her ruling.

A coalition of more than 30 women’s groups sent a letter to Biden and Harris on Thursday night urging the vice president to keep the provision in the Senate package. But the measure may not have the votes in the Senate, as Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have already spoken out against the $15 increase. 

Meanwhile, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ron Wyden, chairs of the Senate Budget and Finance committees, respectively, have said they want to amend the minimum wage provision the House will vote on on Friday to pair it with tax penalties for profitable corporations that don’t pay a higher minimum wage. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley is also proposing that the $15 minimum wage by 2025 apply to only corporations whose revenues exceed $1 billion.  

It is unclear whether the narrower proposals would pass parliamentary muster or have enough support to make it into the final relief bill, but all signs point to an across-the-board hike being unlikely.

For supporters of the increase, a higher minimum wage is an issue of equity. Discussions of the increase dominated congressional hearings this week.  

Testifying before a House subcommittee Wednesday, Heidi Shierholz, the senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, said the increase of the minimum wage is well-documented to help narrow gender and racial pay gaps.

“What we know is that due to the impacts of structural sexism, women are more likely to be in jobs that are affected by a minimum wage increase. So that just mechanically means that raising the minimum wage is going to reduce gender wage gaps,” Shierholz said. 

Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who has studied the impact of the minimum wage on child care costs, said there may also be unintended consequences for single mothers. Her work shows a 21 percent increase in child care costs on average in the United States as a result of minimum wage increases. 

“When you would be facing thousands of dollars more in child care costs per year, that’s going to put these women in a bind and it’s just going to negate any of the potential benefits of having those higher wages,” Greszler said.

But advocates who have been fighting for this increase for years are not backing down. They argue that while there are trade-offs, much of the benefits would be passed on to essential workers and people of color who are barely scraping by — especially in a recession in which the most disadvantaged groups are struggling to rebound. 

“We’ve been at these crossroads before, where there’s lots of excuses for, ‘Why not now?’ or there’s lots of excuses for, ‘Not this bill, some other bill,’” said Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents 2 million workers in service-sector jobs, and who was also at last week’s roundtable with Harris. 

The Fight for $15 and a union movement have been central in building national momentum around raising the federal minimum wage – one that now extends internationally, too. The group’s efforts have led to wage hikes increases at the state and local level across the country. Most recently, Florida passed a $15 minimum wage with more than 60 percent of the vote, something advocates have pointed to as evidence of strong bipartisan voter support for the measure, even in predominantly red states and those that supported former President Donald Trump in the last election. 

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder and executive director of Moms Rising, said raising the minimum wage is “an emergency” that, if unaddressed, will stall the recovery for frontline workers, home health care workers, and others in industries hardest hit by the pandemic. The organization’s membership has sent thousands of texts to members of Congress on the overall relief package

“MomsRising will continue working to raise the federal wage this year, regardless of the vehicle,” Rowe-Finkbeiner said.

Henry, who said she was also disappointed in the parliamentarian’s decision, said Thursday that the stage is set for a continued battle. 

“SEIU members and the millions of workers united in the Fight for $15 and a Union will continue to be the wind at the back of our champions, and hold those who oppose us accountable,” Henry said in a statement Thursday. “Nothing will stop us from achieving the progress our communities need and deserve.”