Pressley and Jayapal: Raising the Minimum Wage Is a Women’s Issue

U.S. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley at the Unity Rally - Cambridge, MA on Sept. 8, 2018. Courtesy photo/Wikimedia Commons

We’ve been cheering on the U.S. women’s soccer team — first as they won the World’s Cup and now as they pursue pay equity. For too long, female professional athletes have earned just a small fraction of what male sports stars earn.
And to that we say: Pay them what they’re owed.

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives has a chance to finally end the unfair and blatantly sexist gender pay gap for a vastly larger group of American women — those who work in low-wage jobs. Because they’re more likely than men to be on the bottom rungs of the income ladder, women have even more to gain from a raise in the federal minimum wage.

So here’s the shocker: Minimum wage is a women’s issue and an economic justice issue.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, 58% of the nearly 40 million U.S. workers who would benefit from this wage hike are women. Nearly one in three out of all female wage-earners and 43% of single mothers would receive a raise. This increase would disproportionately benefit black and Hispanic women.

Ayanna Pressley
U.S. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley at the AFGE’s Women’s and Fair Practices Departments hosted the 2019 AFGE Civil Rights Luncheon and honored the life and legacy of Augusta Y. Thomas on Feb. 11, 2019. Courtesy photo/Wikimedia Commons

For women and men across the country, this raise is long overdue. Congress hasn’t passed a wage increase for more than a decade. The bill the House is likely to vote on this week, the Raise the Wage Act, would increase the hourly minimum gradually from $7.25 to $15 in 2024.

Passing this legislation would mean that millions of women will get a necessary raise. Many work hard every day performing services that are essential to our communities and our society, and yet they earn so little that they still worry about paying their bills. We’re talking, for example, about the more than half a million childcare workers whose typical pay is just $11.17 per hour.

And we’re talking about the nearly 800,000 home health aides whose median pay is $11.63.

The overwhelming share of individuals doing the life-supporting, honorable, and extremely challenging work of caring for our children, people with disabilities, and seniors are women. These types of female-dominated, low-paid jobs are in the fields with the largest projected growth over the next decade. Meanwhile, Wall Street employees, who are predominantly male, made an average of $422,500 (over $200 per hour) in 2017.

Cities like Seattle and states like Massachusetts have been a test case for the federal wage increase. The Seattle City Council voted in 2014 to gradually raise the city’s minimum to $15 by 2021. It currently stands at $12 per hour. The Seattle City Council voted in 2014 to gradually raise the city’s minimum to $15 by 2021.

US Rep. Pramila Jayapal. Courtesy Photo/Wikimedia Commons

It currently stands at $16 per hour for large employers and at least $15 for companies with 500 or fewer employees. A recent study indicates that this can help hardworking Seattle moms put food on the table by raising their pay while not pushing up grocery prices. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the legislature voted to increase the minimum, including the subminimum wage, beginning in 2018.

The federal Raise the Wage Act would also raise the subminimum wage for restaurant servers and other tipped workers, which has been stuck at just $2.13 per hour for a quarter of a century. While employers are technically supposed to make up the difference if workers’ tips don’t bring them above the regular minimum wage, enforcement can be lax.

That’s why poverty rates for tipped workers, two-thirds of whom are women, are more than twice as high as rates for workers overall, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
It’s also why the restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment claims in the United States.

“Women forced to live on tips are compelled to tolerate inappropriate and degrading behavior from customers, coworkers, and managers in order to make a living,” Saru Jayaram of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United explained in a 2015 New York Times op-ed.

Under the wage hike bill, the subminimum wage for tipped workers would be gradually increased until it’s the same as the full minimum wage. Eight states have already eliminated the two-tier wage structure. Women in these One Fair Wage states are less likely to live in poverty than in other states.

All women — whether they are sports champions in the limelight or the caregivers, servers, and others at the low end of the income ladder — deserve fair pay. Today, we hope our colleagues in Congress will help give them that opportunity.

This op-ed was written and prepared by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (WA-07)

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