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Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand today unveiled a five-point plan in Buffalo aiming to ensure financial security for more middle-class women by modernizing workplace policies she said failed to keep pace with the demands of a new work force.

Gillibrand emphasized that 40 percent of women with children at home now serve as sole breadwinners.

If women are financially impeded by “systemic” restrictions in the workplace, the entire middle class and American economy are held back too, Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand spoke this morning to an audience of 200 people who attended the Western New York Women’s Foundation Pathways to Progress Speakers Series at the Avant Building on Delaware Avenue,

“The key to a growing economy – the key to an American middle class that is built to thrive in the 21st century – is women,” she said.

She said Congress and state capitols have failed to keep pace with the face of the modern American workplace.

“Without a doubt, if given a fair shot,” Gillibrand said, “women will be the ones who ignite our economy and lead America’s middle class revival.”

The state’s junior senator said her American Opportunity Agenda is based on expanding paid family medical leave, increasing the minimum wage, providing universal pre-kindergarten education, making affordable day care more accessible and ensuring equal pay for equal work.

Gillibrand offered her thoughts on each part of her legislative plan:

• Paid family medical leave: Anyone having a baby or caring for a sick family member can be challenged to keep a job and advance a career, she said.

“It happens every day. And more often than not – it’s women leaving the workforce to care for a family member,” she said. “This can cause deep and lasting damage to their financial stability. Congress can and should do more to support them and strengthen our economy by expanding paid family medical leave.”

Under legislation she proposed, Congress would create a self-funded, paid family medical leave insurance program, without adding to the deficit. The concept works, she said, by establishing an independent trust fund supported by employee and employer contributions of a small percentage of wages.

• Minimum wage increase: Gillibrand pointed out that women constitute 64 percent of minimum wage earners and called it “simply unacceptable” that a single parent must survive on $15,000 per year.

“Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would help 33 million Americans _ including 17 million women,” she told the audience. “With that added activity in our economy, we could create up to 140,000 new jobs.”

Child care reforms: The senator said the average cost of annual child care – $6,700 – is proving unaffordable for many.

“We should double the tax credit families can take to cover the costs of child care, make it fully refundable, and finally allow families to deduct the cost of child care from their taxes as a business expense,” she said. “This is a tax break that helps working families keep more of what they earn and keep their jobs.”

• Universal Pre-K: Gillibrand said millions of children in struggling families never get the chance for a program that prepares for the future.

“That’s why we need to make the investment today to bring quality, affordable, pre-K to every child in America,” she said.

• Equal Pay: The senator also called for passage of the Equal Pay Act.

“It fundamentally disturbs me that today, in the year 2014, women on average earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, and even less for women of color,” she said. “This has to change.”

“With more dual-income households than ever before, and more sole women breadwinners than ever before,” she added, “when women workers get shortchanged, their entire family and the American economy gets held back.”

Following her remarks, Gillibrand joined a panel discussion featuring Alice Jacobs, chairwoman of the WNY Women’s Foundation; Amber Dixon of the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology; Arlene Kaukus, of the WNY Women’s Foundation; and Marie Cannon of the WNY Childcare Resource Network.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com