Dyann Jagger is a 66-year-old grandmother who works as a cook at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. When she first started working in the food service industry 25 years ago, she was paid $9 an hour. Decades later, after working for a variety of federal contractors, Jagger still only makes $12 an hour, making it difficult to save for retirement—although she’s old enough to retire—and causing her to worry about the future of two of her grandchildren, who also work at the zoo.
Jagger is just one of the nearly 14 million female fast-food workers, housekeepers, health aides, and other minimum wage workers struggling to make ends meet in America. Although the gender pay gap may be well documented among the middle and upper echelons of corporate America, a study released Wednesday by the National Women’s Law Center shows that even women in low-wage jobs make 13 percent less than their male counterparts. That difference is more pronounced for Latinas and black women.
In the study, a “low wage worker” is defined as someone working in a position with an hourly median pay of $10.10 or less—that’s the amount the Obama administration wants to see the federal minimum wage increased to. Women make up about two-thirds of low-wage workers in the U.S., even though they make up only half of the total workforce, the report says.
“Women in the [minimum wage] workforce today...are not necessarily who you think they might be,” said Katherine Gallagher Robbins, senior policy analyst at NWLC.
These employees are no longer the stereotype many envision minimum wage workers to be. Most are not teenagers, and about 80 percent have finished high school. Some have even completed some college or have an associate’s degree, and many are mothers or even grandmothers, according to the report.
These women are struggling to support families on $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage. Even a full-time, year-round worker would only make $14,500 annually at that wage—a salary well below the poverty line for a family of three. Even when women are doing the same jobs as men, they are often paid less, pigeonholed into positions “traditionally” filled by females, said Robbins.
For example, maids and housekeepers are often paid less than janitors, she said. Even though these occupations are similar, janitors often receive higher wages purely because the job is associated with men and the majority of maids and housekeepers are women.
When there is an opportunity for a low-wage worker to move into a leadership position such as manager, supervisor, or even lead waiter, those promotions typically go to men, said Robbins.
“You hear a lot about women getting more education, graduating from college,” she said. “I think a lot of people thought that would ‘solve the problem’ of women’s equality.”
But the problems of unequal pay persist, and there are simply more educated women filling minimum wage jobs. In addition to unlivable wages, women face a variety of hurdles in the workplace due to rigid and unreasonable expectations.
“We hear these really crazy stories” about pregnant workers and mothers being denied basic requests, said Robbins. Soon-to-be moms are often instructed by their doctors to stay well hydrated, but their bosses will often tell them they’re not allowed to carry a bottle of water with them on their shift. Some nursing mothers are forced to pump breast milk in a bathroom, closet, or other unsanitary location because their employers won’t comply with laws that require them to provide a private space for women who are nursing.
Other mothers may show up for a day’s work but, because business is slow, get sent home early. They leave with less pay than anticipated and have already paid for child care for the day.
The number of women in low-wage jobs has only increased in recent years, and the trend is expected to continue, according to the report. As a result, advocates are proposing national policy changes that will help support families living off low-wage work and provide more opportunities for all workers to have access to higher-paying jobs.
One of the most obvious solutions would be to raise the minimum wage, an action many states have already taken. While some have only raised their floor payments by a quarter or a dollar, California raised the minimum wage to $9; in Oregon, it’s $9.10. Seattle made news last month when its city council voted to hike the minimum wage to $15 an hour. While workers rejoiced over the news, the decision now faces a backlash from small business owners who think the dramatic increase is unsustainable.
The National Women’s Law Center suggests that even basic changes in policy could drastically alter the landscape of low-wage work. Their suggestions include greater protections against employment discrimination and ensuring that employees receive paid sick leave as well as family leave.
“It should be a no-brainer: Policies that work for women in low-wage jobs will lift up all workers and their families and strengthen our economy for everyone,” said Joan Entmacher, NWLC vice president for family economic security.