Karen Nussbaum

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Advocates are expressing anger over the Bush Administration’s proposed elimination of the 10 regional offices of the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau. The offices conduct educational campaigns to inform women about gender and pregnancy discrimination issues, pay equity, health care, non-traditional employment and childcare.

The proposal, which a Labor Department spokesperson described as “subject to change” before it is included in the president’s new budget, was made by the Office of Management and Budget and, if implemented, could affect about 30 employees in 10 field offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle. The proposed budget will be completed in February and voted on by Congress.

Labor Department and Women’s Bureau spokespersons did not return calls requesting comment from Women’s Bureau director Shinae Chun.

Dismay about the proposed change came from many quarters. Jacquelyn Smith, who was deputy director of the Women’s Bureau from 1991 to 1993 under the first Bush administration, said she understands the need for cost-cutting but added:

“I would like to think that the Women’s Bureau would be allowed the opportunity to decide how best to serve working women rather than having someone come in and decide for them.”

Smith, now district office director for Republican Congressman Ander Crenshaw, Florida, said that when she was at the Women’s Bureau, she considered the regional offices the most valuable aspect among all the bureau’s functions. Moving all operations to Washington “is not of the same benefit as having people who are very visible in the community,” she said.

In a letter to Labor secretary Elaine Chao dated Dec. 17, a group of five high profile women protested the proposed action.

“The elimination of the Women’s Bureau Regional Offices . . . would end programs that are vital and necessary to working women today. It would also send an unfortunate signal about what priority the administration places on the concerns of working women,” states the letter, signed by Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the Women’s Law Center, Judith L. Liehtman, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, Nancy Kreiter, research director at Women Employed, Jean Kuriansky, executive director of Wider Opportunities for Women and Nancy Zirkin, director of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women. NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund turned to Congress seeking to stop the proposed closings. Women’s Enews is currently a program of NOW Legal Defense.

One organization that has worked with the Chicago regional office of the bureau fears that the closing of the regional offices is only the first move in a larger plan.

“We see this as a step to eliminating the Women’s Bureau completely,” says Melissa Josephs, senior policy associate at Women Employed, a Chicago-based organization for women workers. A Labor Department spokesperson said that the agency supports the bureau and does not want it closed down.

Karen Nussbaum, director of the Women’s Bureau during the first Clinton administration and now director of the Working Women’s Department at AFL-CIO headquarters, said that “getting rid of these offices is another way the Bush administration is cutting off working women from solutions to their problems.”

Nussbaum said the regional offices are needed more than every and cited statistics indicating that one-third of working women have no paid sick leave, that women are working longer hours than ever before and that they have seen pensions and other benefits decline over the last generation as evidence.

The shuttering of the offices would centralize the administration of the 81-year-old Women’s Bureau in Washington, and turn it from an organization with local initiatives in all 50 states to a policy-making organization run by a presidential appointee, insiders say.

Many advocates for women said they fear that the proposal is part of a pattern of defunding or altering government agencies and organizations working on women’s issues.

In January, 2001, the Bush administration effectively closed down the White House Office on Women’s Initiatives and Outreach, which was founded in 1995 to advance certain pro-women policies such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and to act as a liaison between the White House and women’s groups.

Last month, advocates for women in the military expressed dismay about the Bush administration’s near-abandonment of a board that reported on women’s issues to defense leaders and pressed for women’s full participation in the military. Women’s advocates also report that the Labor Department has removed some information about the Women’s Bureau’s Equal Pay Matters Initiative from the bureau’s website and may be abandoning that initiative as well.

The Women’s Bureau, which was established in 1920, is the only federal agency mandated to represent the needs and public policy concerns of working women, according to the Department of Labor’s Web site. The bureau was instrumental in securing the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, and in launching initiatives around the country to help women achieve workplace equality and safety.

The Women’s Bureau Web site says the regional offices represent “constituents” interests by partnering with local women’s advocacy and community-based organizations, educational institutions, federal, state and local agencies, employers and unions throughout the region. The offices also assist individual women seeking assistance. The offices are called upon to promote and advance high-wage, high-skill employment opportunities for women and girls and to provide technical assistance on issues related to workers’ rights, family-friendly workplace programs, and career options.

The closing of the offices would be a “step backward for women in this country,” says Marianne Hill, a founder, with the regional Women’s Bureau office, of Mississippi’s state Women’s Commission. “It’s hard to imagine any satisfactory rationale that could be given for a step backward.” Hill is an economist at the Mississippi Center for Policy Research and Planning, which conducts independent research for the state government.

Employees at many of the regional offices declined to comment on the development for fear it would endanger their jobs.

As news of the shut-down proposal reached women’s advocates last week, they picked up their telephone and logged onto the Internet and encouraged their constituents to contact their Congressional representatives and tell them to oppose the change.

“There’s so much that still remains to be done,” says Marianne Hill, mentioning welfare-to-work transition, health care and women’s retirement as key issues that require attention.

“There is such a range of issues that need to be addressed if women are to make the fullest contribution they can make.”

Sarah Stewart Taylor is a free-lance writer in Washington, D.C.

For more information:

The Department of Labor Women’s Bureau:

The Working Women’s Department of the AFL-CIO: