Working people have always been and will continue to be essential. Since 1973, they have been at the heart of Women Employed’s mission and in the last few years, we realized that our work to advance equity for all has also been as essential as the services they provide.
We have continued in our pursuit for equity for all by leading the charge for paid leave in Illinois, working to advance access and racial equity in higher education, helping women emerge from the ‘she-cession’, and smashing the status quo by reshaping the workplace—building a better future where women can not only survive, but thrive.
In 2022, we laid the groundwork for an innovative approach to empowering Black and Latina/x women to find the resources they need to start and grow businesses. Our Women’s Entrepreneurship Hub (WE Hub) gathers resources from trusted partners throughout Illinois into one central place. We provide personalized tasks and toolkits and access to a community, guiding women to achieve their vision of success.
With support from the Michael Reese Health Trust, WE is leading a project to improve how domestic violence survivors are connected with services that attach them to meaningful employment and build economic independence. In 2022, we conducted original research, filling a knowledge gap on the economic barriers facing Chicagoland survivors. Our report, Intersecting Barriers, provides recommendations to address those barriers and support promising practices.
In 2022, WE advocated to ensure more equitable working conditions for those who work in tipped professions—starting with the elimination of the subminimum wage so all working people can earn a full and fair wage with tips on top. Illinois tipped workers earn a subminimum wage of just $7.20 an hour, disproportionately impacting women and People of Color who are more likely to work in tipped industries. To combat this, we launched the Full and Fair Wage Coalition with One Fair Wage and other partners to ensure equitable pay for everyone.
Sexual harassment remains a persistent workplace barrier, but we’re finding new ways to combat it at all levels. In 2022, we worked with the Chicago Mayor’s office to win a sexual harassment prevention ordinance requiring employers to provide additional training and increasing protections for working people, and we’re helping the City develop the mandatory resources and trainings. Following an amicus brief WE co-led with the National Women’s Law Center, ACLU, and DLA Piper LLC, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed a troubling decision and affirmed the importance of protection against retaliatory defamation lawsuits for those who report and participate in investigating sexual harassment and other discrimination! We also joined partners across the country to advocate for a federal law banning forced arbitration for survivors of sexual harassment, and were present at the White House to witness the bill being signed into law.
Every year roughly $400 million in wages are stolen from Chicagoland workers by bad-faith employers. Domestic workers—who are overwhelmingly Black and Brown, women, and immigrants—are especially vulnerable. In 2021, WE participated in the City of Chicago’s Protecting Workers Workgroup, whose recommendations became the basis of the Chi Biz Strong Worker Protection ordinance. This important law—which passed in June—gives the city clear enforcement authority against wage theft, raises wages and strengthens protections for domestic workers, expands use of paid sick days, and more.
As a leading advocate for Illinois students, in 2021, WE fought hard to secure a $28 million increase to the Monetary Award Program (MAP), resulting in thousands more low-income students receiving more need-based financial aid. And in 2022, we won an additional $122 million in MAP funding. These historic increases in funding bring us closer to achieving our goal: MAP grants being awarded to ALL eligible students, covering 100 percent of their tuition and fees at public universities and community colleges.
Nationally, more than 1 in 5 college students are parents—and most are women. They juggle the demands of raising children alongside school and, often, work. In Illinois, few institutions collect information about these students, making it difficult to understand and meet their needs. In 2021, WE championed—and helped win!—the Student Parent Data Collection Act, which requires institutions of higher education to collect and report data about student parents—an important first step in better supporting their success.
In 2021, Women Employed took a cross-sector approach to closing the racial achievement gaps in higher education that keep so many from reaching their goals. We launched the ASPIRE (Accelerating Racial Equity and Increasing Racial Equity) Project, partnering with ten Illinois community colleges to reform developmental education in Illinois and increase the number of students from underserved backgrounds who graduate with a credential with workforce value.
We also worked with the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus to pass an Education Omnibus Bill, served on Chicago State University’s Equity Working Group, and our President and CEO Cherita Ellens served on the advisory committee for the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s strategic plan, all in an effort to close equity gaps in higher education in Illinois.
Equity is so core to WE, it’s reflected in our tagline: “WE pursue equity for all.”
That means looking at our own work culture. In 2021, we partnered with Soar
Strategies as part of an ongoing effort to evaluate racial equity and inclusion
at WE. We held listening sessions with current and former staff. We audited our
salaries and made adjustments to ensure our pay is equitable. And we created
action steps for continued change. While we’re not perfect, we strive to be better. And we’re in it for the long haul.
In 2020, we advocated to accelerate Chicago’s minimum wage increase to $15/hour by 2021, and, with your help, we won! The ordinance also gradually eliminates the subminimum wage for youth workers and workers with disabilities.
At the federal level, in 2020, WE joined our voice with national partners to advocate for—and win!—emergency paid sick time and paid family leave for struggling families. WE also developed and delivered a comprehensive set of Congressional asks for COVID relief, and compiled an iterative list of resources to help working people, families, and adult students access programs and support to get through the crisis.
WE improved on our existing bridge programs in 2020 by working with City Colleges of Chicago and community partners to ensure that, while students complete their bridge program, they are simultaneously earning an industry-recognized credential, leading to immediate attachment to the workforce, with the ability to earn advanced certifications over time.