Some cities and states across the country are pursuing higher minimum wages, which will especially help women and people of color. However, the disproportionate concentration of women and people of color earning less than a living wage necessitates the addition of more targeted tools in addition to the wage and benefit supports that help all workers.
Targeted Tools to Help Women and People of Color Achieve Pay Equity
Strengthen and Enforce Equal Opportunity Statutes, Including Affirmative Action: Equal opportunity statutes like the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action were designed to help ensure that women and people of color are not discriminated against in the workplace and in other venues. However, enforcement of these policies isn’t consistent, leaving the statutes weak and ineffective. Strengthening and enforcing such statutes can help ensure that the statutes actually benefit women and people of color.
Guarantee Paid Leave that Includes Maternity Leave and Parental Leave to Care for Sick Children: Paid sick leave is important for all workers to allow them to take time to recover from illness rather than coming in sick or risk losing their job. For parents with children, and especially single mothers, more likely to work low-wage a job and living paycheck to paycheck, the risk of losing a job to take care of a sick child is a heartbreaking dilemma. Additionally, women without maternity leave are at risk of losing their jobs when they become pregnant, or in take leave without pay. For women earning less than a living wage, this can threaten their housing, health, and chance for them and their children to stay out of poverty.
Provide Union Opportunities for Sectors Not Covered by the NLRA: Women and people of color are less likely to be unionized than are white men, partly due to their concentration in service sectors and in agricultural and domestic service occupations such as home health care workers and farmworkers which were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act of 1934. Unionizing occupations like fast food workers and home health care workers can help women and people of color see increased wages and benefits.
Prohibit Pay Secrecy and Encourage Pay Transparency: While the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 states that all employees have the right to share their wage information, many employers either formally or informally discourage or even forbid it. When women and people of color do not have access to information on their colleagues’ wages, they may be unaware that they are being underpaid and so do not dispute their lower wages. Stronger penalties against companies that formally forbid employees from sharing wage information and policies that encourage companies to make such information public would help women and people of color to immediately recognize when they are not receiving the same wages as other employees.
Expand and Strengthen Social Security: Because women and people of color are more likely to earn less than a living wage, they are less able to save for retirement and depend solely on Social Security when or if they retire. Additionally, because women live longer than men, their Social Security benefits must last longer than benefits for their male counterparts. Eliminating the income cap on taxable wages would provide more funding for Social Security. Strengthening the program rather than eliminating or cutting benefits will allow women and people of color be able to retire knowing that they will have enough money to support themselves throughout their retirement.
Income and Work Supports
Increase the Federal Minimum Wage: Wages should provide enough for workers to make ends meet. Seattle has set the bar for a minimum wage at $15 per hour. In the 10 states we look at in our study, a $15 wage would only cover the cost of living for single individuals in Idaho and Montana, and falls well short when factoring in families with children and households with debt. Meanwhile, it has been five years since the federal wage floor was last increased. Women and people of color make up a disproportionate share of minimum wage workers, and continue to see the detrimental effects of a low minimum wage. Congress must keep pace with increasing wage demands.
Abolish the Federal Tipped Minimum Wage: The federal tipped minimum wage has been stagnant at $2.13 per hour for over 20 years. Because women and people of color make up a disproportionate share of tipped workers, they are especially effected by the low tipped minimum wage and changes in the economy that affect customers’ tipping habits. While businesses are supposed to ensure that tips bring workers’ wages up to the minimum wage for non-tipped workers, this is not always the case in practice. Additionally, this practice takes pressure off of employers to pay workers a living wage, and instead gives customers the responsibility of making up the difference. Abolishing the tipped minimum wage would help millions of workers get closer to making ends meet — and put the responsibility on businesses to pay their workers’ wages.
Invest in State and Federal Safety Net Programs, Including Childcare Assistance: Until there are enough living wage jobs to go around for all household types, families will still face tough choices. Federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) should be strengthened, and state supports, like earned income tax credits and child care assistance should be bolstered. Childcare assistance is especially important for single mothers, who are more likely to live in poverty.
Workers throughout the country struggle to make ends meet, with over a third of workers nationally and in the 10 states and New York City studied in this report earning less than the living wage for a single adult. However, women and people of color are especially harmed by a culture of low wages, as they are more likely to earn less than a living wage.
The concentration of women and people of color in low-wage work harms these workers, their families, and their communities. We’ve found that even in states with a higher minimum wage, like Washington, women and people of color are more likely to be in low-wage work and earn less. These workers must make tradeoffs to scrape by in areas like savings, utilities, or even food.
While policy interventions to raise all wages are important, targeted interventions that directly address the equity gap for women and people of color are necessary to end the concentration of these groups at the bottom of the wage scale and ensure that all workers earn wages that allow them to make ends meet.
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