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Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand came to Buffalo Friday to outline her five-point plan to modernize workplace policies, bolster middle-class families and ensure wage equity.

“The key to creating a thriving middle class in the 21st century is with women, and one way to do that is through paid family medical leave,” Gillibrand said at a forum organized by the Western New York Women’s Foundation who gathered at the Avant building.

“The FAMILY Act would create an independent trust fund within the Social Security Administration to collect fees and provide benefits,” Gillibrand said. ‘For the cost of a cup of coffee a week, you can have the peace of mind to know if you have a baby, or if a family member becomes gravely ill, you can take that week on a paid basis.”

Gillibrand’s first plank of her five-point plan was met with spontaneous and sustained applause from the audience. She continued by stressing the need to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. “Two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women,” she noted.

The senator’s speech, part of the Pathways to Progress speaker series, also addressed the escalating cost of child care.

“Without affordable day care, we are hampering women’s ability to provide for themselves, their families and their ability to get ahead,” she said. “For every dollar you invest in education of a three-year-old, you get $11 back in return in economic benefits throughout that child’s life,” said Gillibrand, quoting a National Institutes of Health statistic.

Gillibrand’s last two planks – her support for the Strong Start for America’s Children Act (or universal pre-kindergarten) and Paycheck Fairness Act, which builds on the promise of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 – preceded a panel discussion.

Panel members were Marie Cannon, executive director of Child Care Resource Network; Arlene Kaukus, director of Career Services at the University of Buffalo; and Amber Dixon, executive director of Buffalo Arts and Technology Center.

Dixon, the former interim superintendent of the Buffalo school system, stole the show when she put a face on the challenge working women continue to experience as they balance career and family.

Dixon shared her personal story of being an industrial worker. Dixon, the mother of one son, holds degrees from Medaille College and the University at Buffalo.

“First of all, I’m old,” said Dixon, who is 60. “So when I started working, it was all pretty simple. My expectation when I entered a traditional male industry, my understanding, was that if I worked as hard as the person standing next to me – and I was in a union – I would be paid the same rate. It was up to me to make it work, and that carried me a long a ways until motherhood stepped in.

“I became a mom, and then a single mom, and I walked into one new department in a local industry and was welcomed by a supervisor who said to me: ‘We just want you to know we never had a girl before, but we don’t go home for sick children here. That’s why there are ambulances and emergency rooms.’ ”

Her narrative was interrupted by the senator.

“Oh, my God,” Gillibrand cried out from her place on the panel, as the sentiment was echoed throughout the room.

Cannon and Kaukus each addressed the increasing need for quality child care. “In Erie County, 70 percent of the children between birth and 12 years have both parents in the workforce,” Cannon said. “That’s 96,000 children who potentially need child care.”

“Women with children should have not to choose lower than acceptable child care because the cost of quality care is outside their reach,” Kaukus said.

The annual national cost of day care is averaging $10,000, said Gillibrand, who is working to more than double the Dependent and Child Care Tax Credit.

Among the women in the audience was Roberta Dayer, who is 78 and lives in Buffalo’s Central Park neighborhood. She is retired from the former Western New York International Trade Council.

“Women need to be on more major boards,” she said. “I mean, we’ve been fighting this fight for a long time, and we need more decision makers who are women. It’s like what Crystal Peoples said: ‘If you want to stop sexual harassment, get more women in the Assembly.’ It’s that simple.”

email jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com