PROVIDENCE – Governor Dan McKee signed into law a number of bills aimed at supporting women’s health and equity in Rhode Island on Wednesday morning. The governor was joined at the ceremony by local elected officials including Representative Justine Caldwell (D-Dist. 30, East Greenwich, West Greenwich) and Senator V. Susan Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, New Shoreham, South Kingstown). 

The first bill (2021-S 0270A and 2021 H 5261A) ensures pay equity for all employees regardless of gender or ethnicity. The second (2021-S 0003A and 2021-H 5763) bans health insurers from using gender rating, a discriminatory practice of charging women and men different premiums for individual insurance. 

“Women face unconscionable disparities when buying health insurance in the individual market,” said Sosnowski, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate. “Women sometimes are charged 10 percent to 25 percent to 50 percent more than men for insurance providing identical coverage, especially during the age bracket associated with child-bearing years.” 

The first bill explicitly lays out an anti-discriminatory policy for Rhode Island businesses and employers. 

“No employer shall pay any of its employees at a wage rate less than the rate paid to employees of another race, or color, or religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, age, or country of ancestral origin for comparable work,” the legislation reads. 

The bill also lays out standards and systems for a lawful wage differential with components including seniority (outside of time spent on leave for pregnancy or parental, family and medical leave), a merit system, a system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production, geographic location, reasonable shift differential and education, training or experience, among other factors.

The Director of Labor and Training would oversee and enforce the law and fines would be imposed if an employer is found to be discriminatory in matters of wage equity. 

“I’m proud to support women’s health and equity,” said McKee. “Today, Rhode Island is closing a number of discriminatory gaps and eliminating a collection of practices that have unfairly impacted women for generations. Thank you to the remarkable and dedicated group of legislators who worked day-in and day-out to ensure that these bills became law, and to the advocates whose tireless work and spirit ensured that this progress continues.” 

The third bill (2021-S 0086A, 2021-H 5083A) was co-sponsored by local representative Carol Hagan McEntee (D-Dist. 33, South Kingstown, Narragansett) and will require all public schools to provide feminine hygiene products at no cost.

“These products are not luxuries, they are necessities for many of our students,” said Hagan McEntee. “If soap and paper towels are available in bathrooms, so should feminine hygiene products, it’s as simple as that. This bill will prevent the embarrassment suffered by our students who have an accident during the school day and afford them the dignity that they deserve.” 

The fourth bill (2021-S 0060, 2021-H 5289) will allow candidates for office to use campaign funds for child care while they are participating in campaign or officeholder activities.

“While child care can be a concern for potential candidates of any gender, it is a consideration that can deter many women from running for office,” said Caldwell, who sponsored the bill in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. “Guaranteeing the legitimacy of using campaign funds in this way can help to encourage more women to run, bringing valuable perspective to state and local government. Child care that enables a candidate to perform their political or officeholder activities is a necessity, so of course it should be recognized as a valid campaign expense.” 

The final bill (2021-S 0062Aaa, 2021-H 5370Aaa) will protect survivors of domestic and sexual violence by allowing people to request that their insurers send health communications directly to them instead of a parent or spouse.

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