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Why women fight for $15 minimum wage

Wmc Features Fight For15 Photo By David Mc New Getty Images
Striking McDonald’s workers in Los Angeles in 2016. Women make up 70 percent of restaurant workers. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

At first glance, it might seem that 2018 is off to a promising start for working people. The minimum wage will increase in 18 states and the District of Columbia this year. And some legislators have claimed that the new tax bill will benefit low-income earners. But the reality is that those tax breaks won’t trickle down to the average employee — approximately 20.6 million people who earn the federal minimum wage, or something close to it. And among these low-income earners, it is women who get the short end of the stick.

Some people will see more money in their pockets this year, courtesy of advocates pushing for meaningful increases at the local level. More than 40 cities and counties have implemented wages that exceed state requirements, to speed up progress for those struggling. Working people in Montgomery County, MD and Minneapolis, MN won $15 per hour minimums, starting in 2021 and 2024, respectively. The workers’ advocacy movement Fight For $15 paved the way through its campaign to transform the lives of people working minimum wage jobs. Ten million working people have won $15 an hour pay rates, thanks to their efforts, and millions more have secured increases in their paychecks since 2012.

Before we pop the champagne to celebrate, it’s important to note that most of the increases at the state level are minimal, like the mere $.04 bump in Alaska, and $.014 in New Jersey. Even the states offering the largest boosts are slight: a $1 increase in Maine, and a $.90 increase in Colorado.

And some politicians have gone to the extremes of trying to take away these nominal raises. In Missouri, for example, the state legislature last year snatched back local increases in St. Louis and Kansas City. Voters in both cities had approved minimum wage hikes to $10 in 2017, then up to $11 in 2018. But the legislature forced both locales to roll back the increases to $7.70 — the standard across the state — saying no city can exceed the state minimum. Legislators and greedy corporations continue making it hard for many of us to enjoy the fruits of our labor. With setbacks like these, working people, particularly working women, feel the economic brunt.

Nicole Mason is one example. She earns $7.50 an hour working at a fast-food restaurant in Killeen, TX. Nicole is a single mother of two who lives “paycheck to paycheck.” She has had to supplement her income with food stamps, move back in with her parents, and give up her car because her employer refuses to pay a sustainable wage. Nicole wants to go back to school, have a car again, and save money for her family’s future, but she can’t on what she earns. She is not alone in her experience. Recent reports show that minimum wage earners can’t meet the cost of housing, food, and other basic expenses.

Economic inequality continues to increase in the United States. The richest 1 percent control almost 40 percent of our country’s wealth, while people earning the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour are living near or below the poverty line in almost every state. Women, who make up two-thirds of the minimum wage workforce, are most severely impacted.

Increasing wages seems like a no-brainer. Minimum wage raises across the board would put women and men on equal economic footing, as well as spur economic growth. Higher wages put more money in the pockets of more people and boost consumer spending, increasing overall economic activity. Boosting the minimum wage also would help shrink the gender pay gap and the imbalances of power in the workplace that come with it. On average, women earn only about 80 cents per every dollar that a man earns. And the gap is even wider for Black and Latina women. A nasty byproduct of low wages is that it makes women more susceptible to workplace harassment and abuse. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received more than 5,000 sexual harassment complaints from women in 2015. Of the 2,036 grievances (where an industry was listed), 12.5 percent came from two sectors where women earn the least: the hotel and food industries 

It doesn’t help that women make up the majority of tipped earners — 70 percent of restaurant workers are women. And it is one industry that legally gets away with paying its employees a subminimum wage. Federal law requires employers to pay individuals who earn “tipped wages” only a paltry $2.13 per hour. As a result, female tipped servers are twice as likely as the general population to rely on food stamps. The circumstances are even worse for Black, Latina, and immigrant women. Studies show that women of color working in restaurants earn 71 cents on every dollar that a white man earns.

Members of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United and their allies are leading the charge to ensure restaurants pay their employees stable incomes. In 2015, ROC United launched its One Fair Wage campaign, which aims to eliminate the tipped minimum wage so that that those working in the restaurant industry can attain greater financial security. To date, seven states have implemented One Fair Wage, and current active campaigns in the District of Columbia, Michigan, and New York are underway.

Women employed in the care industry are another group striving to get by while working in a low- paying field. The market for home health and personal care providers is expanding, but it offers some of the worst pay and benefits in the job market. Fifty-five percent of home health aides live at 200 percent below the poverty line. Women — about half of them women of color — hold the majority of these positions. While these women take care of others, they can’t afford to take care of themselves, let alone their families.

A significant wage raise would mean so much to working women across the country, offering them the freedom to provide for their families and live more comfortable lives. There has been some headway with states, cities, and counties implementing wage increases. Union organizers and labor activists continue to push for change at the local level and have achieved success through ballot initiatives. Despite a challenging political climate that favors the rich, the work of wage advocates like Fight for $15, ROC United, and others gives us hope that fair and equal wages are not just a fantasy. Through community organizing, working people won wage victories in retail, fast food, and other sectors over the past few years. We must keep up the grassroots pressure and continue to move campaigns to raise wages to make it possible for more working women to come together to achieve a fair return on their work, increased workplace security, and ultimately, economic independence.

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