In 2014, Sonia Soares, a housecleaner and caretaker from Lynn, Massachusetts, stood in front of the state Legislature in Boston to describe her life of long hours and low pay, of wage theft and harassment, of being denied time off for doctor visits, of not even getting overtime pay for working more than 40 hours per week. Domestic workers like Sonia have been subjected to legal exploitation ever since they were carved out of our protective labor laws during the New Deal. “My colleagues and I clean up to 14 houses a day and still struggle to make ends meet,” Soares testified. “I personally have been slapped in the face, pushed, yelled at, and sexually harassed.”
Powered by a real grassroots effort, these women, many of whom are immigrants, have won some notable victories recently, including legislation in Massachusetts, New York, and California to address at least some of these historical legal lacunae. And on the national level, women like Sonia, long denied overtime and a minimum wage, persuaded President Obama to issue a rule to fix this lingering form of racial and gender discrimination. Seventy-eight years after the Fair Labor Standards Act explicitly exempted the mostly minority and mostly female domestic workforce from protection, an estimated 2.5 million nannies, home health-care workers, and other laborers are now finally covered by the Depression-era law.
As we come to the end of President Obama’s second term, we need to ask how well he’s done in creating opportunity for working families, especially on the questions of income inequality, stagnant real wages, demographic wage gaps, and lack of family supports – all of which disproportionately hurt women. What is he leaving for the next President to do?
As one of his first official acts, Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which made it easier for women to recover wages lost to discrimination, raising expectations from advocates that women’s wages and family responsibilities would be a priority for his Administration. But as he dealt with the recession and Republican obstructionism, he chose to prioritize passage of the Affordable Care Act and waited to take more action on these economic fronts until his second term was halfway over. Without a doubt, the ACA has made a difference—before it, many women working in low-wage jobs suffered an existential dilemma every time they needed health care—food or medicine? Rent or a doctor’s visit? But even as these types of choices have become less common as the ranks of the uninsured have diminished, women’s wages still lag significantly behind men’s, and the United States remains one of the few developed countries without an infrastructure to reconcile work and caregiving. The ACA was necessary, but it was nowhere near sufficient.
With respect to wages, Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), notes that it really wasn’t until 2014 that the Obama Administration proposed new rules to address lagging wages, well after Occupy Wall Street and the Fight for Fifteen (the minimum wage campaign) forced income inequality to the center stage. But since then, the Administration has initiated some valuable reforms, geared especially toward helping women. In line with his move to ensure minimum wage and overtime to home health aides and other domestic workers, Obama proposed a new regulation, which takes effect in 2016, to raise the qualifying salary for overtime pay from $23,660 per year to $50,440, ensuring that employers can’t wiggle out of overtime requirements simply by designating low-wage workers as “salaried.” Women make up the majority of the approximately 13 million workers whose wages will be increased. Obama has also used his rule-making powers to make it harder for companies with a history of discrimination to get federal contracts; to require contractors to provide summary pay data, broken down by race and sex (to allow for better enforcement of discrimation laws); and to prohibit them from taking adverse action against workers who discuss salary issues. Another rule bars contractors from forcing workers to agree to arbitrate claims. Arbitration can tip the balance decisively in favor of the boss by eliminating class actions and a providing a legal forum in which employers have advantages because they are repeat players.
In addition to these new rules, Labor Secretary Tom Perez has stepped up his department’s enforcement in cases where employers misclassify workers as independent contractors to avoid overtime, minimum wage, unionization, and other benefits that accrue only to employees. Allegations of this type of misclassification have recently beset companies like Uber and Lyft on the vanguard of the “gig economy,” but the ploy has plagued the low-wage sector, a sector dominated by women, for much longer.
According to Patricia Smith, the Labor Department’s solicitor and the chief enforcer of U.S. labor laws, the department’s efforts have “yielded more than $74 million in back wages for more than 102,000 workers in industries such as janitorial, temporary help, food service, day care, hospitality, and garment making.” The case against Super Maids was a typical example, Smith said. The maid service classified its workers as independent contractors “even though they had to sign noncompete agreements, and the company provided training, vehicles, equipment, and set the maids’ work hours and assignments. It also threatened the maids with disciplinary action if they took too long cleaning. And, as so often happens in cases like this, the company crimped on pay, and the workers ended up receiving less than the minimum wage,” Smith recently recounted to a meeting of the American Bar Association’s Section of Labor and Employment Law. The Labor Department persuaded the judge that the maids were indeed employees, and they were awarded back wages and damages.
Looking ahead, one major task for the next administration is to raise the minimum wage. Even though women are about half of the American workforce, they make up two-thirds of minimum wage workers. While 7 million workers have benefited from recent minimum wage increases in 17 states, the District of Columbia, and several cities, the federal minimum wage is disgracefully low and includes a scandalous sub-miminum wage of $2.13 an hour for tipped employees. Tipped employees include salon workers, parking lot attendants, casino dealers, taxi drivers, but restaurant workers, three-quarters of whom are women, are by far the largest group of tipped workers. Overall, two-thirds of the 5 million tipped workers in the United States are women.
The Obama Administration deserves credit for some meaningful efforts. Ensuring more women get paid overtime, enforcing misclassification laws, and upgrading protections for the federal workforce are not bupkes. Viewed together, these rules have helped millions of women. But why, Larry Mishel of EPI wonders, “hasn’t the White House packaged its work as a wage initiative? It’s not as if the Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t notice; but who doesn’t notice is the American people.” The next President must embrace a comprehensive plan to narrow the wage gap, including a minimum wage increase, and make it visible. If we want real change, we need the next President to use the bully pulpit to win hearts and minds for a high-wage, high-productivity economy—and finally break the spell of Reaganism.
Women’s wages are affected directly by policies to advance fair pay but also indirectly by the supports available for caregiving, a role that women continue to dominate. By failing to have any national paid leave policy, the United States lags woefully behind most countries. In the few states where it exists, it helps not just workers with families but also their employers. One documented impact of paid leave is that it brings women back to the same employer after childbirth in much higher numbers—meaning employers have much lower turnover costs.
By bringing much needed national attention to the issue, Obama has moved us a bit closer to remedying the lack of paid sick and family leave. First, the White House has provided high-profile forums, from its Summit on Working Families, which has featured Secretary Perez, Michelle Obama, and others, to the President’s State of the Union addresses emphasizing paid leave policies. The Department of Labor has also served as cheerleader for paid leave policies through the #LeadonLeave campaign and reports on the struggles of low- and middle-income families without paid leave. Here as well, the Administration has used its rule-making power to help federal employees and employees of federal contractors, including requiring contractors to provide paid sick leave and allowing federal workers more flexibility in their use of banked leave time for family responsibilities. According to Ellen Bravo, the president of Family Values at Work, the White House’s multifaceted approach has been “enormously successful.”
But even on this issue, paid family leave is still the exception rather than the rule. While the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave for some parents, 40 percent of private sector workers and 80 percent of new mothers fail to qualify for the benefit. And since the FMLA provides only unpaid leave, even those mothers who qualify often opt out because they can’t afford to lose wages. Paid leave, by contrast, is more likely to be available to higher earners, so the 11 percent of the workforce that has it tends to be white and male. Some members of Congress have introduced legislation to add paid leave to the FMLA; the next President needs to join with them to fix this gaping hole in our safety net.
And paid leave is only a small part of the equation—once leave ends, parents still need child care. As women are most likely to serve as a family’s primary caregiver, motherhood will remain a significant driver of the wage gap. President Obama proposed universal pre-K to serve three- and four-year-olds, with some subsidies for care of younger children. Instead of being income-based like Head Start, it would be available for all children and not stigmatize the poor for participating. But despite the President’s stated support, this idea never got out of the starting gate.
We need the next President to embrace child care and make it truly successful by raising the wages and status of caregivers and teachers. Currently, 97 percent of those providing child care are women, with average earnings barely above $21,000; preschool teachers earn only around $30,000. Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, is complimentary of the Administration’s work to help caregivers, but notes that these are still poverty-wage jobs. “We have a care gap,” she says, pointing out the need for care at both ends of life. “The job of the next president is to make quality care accessible and affordable. And that will require more than incremental change—it will require a major investment in infrastructure.”
So there’s much more to do, including improving retirement security for women who have been paid less throughout their life, resulting in smaller Social Security checks and limited access to pensions. We also need controls on the “on-demand” scheduling employed by the retail and restaurant industries, which has wreaked havoc on the lives of the women who dominate those workforces. And importantly, the next President needs to prioritize helping workers join unions. Women have benefited particularly from collective bargaining, because unionized jobs have the smallest pay gaps and most access to paid leave in the workforce. And, by the way, those domestic workers finally getting minimum wage and overtime remain excluded from many labor laws, including the one that protects their right to join a union.
In 2016, our economy depends on women’s labor. In poorer families, over two-thirds of women earn as much as or more than their husbands. In a growing number of families, women are the sole earners, and four in ten American mothers are the only breadwinners for their families. So it is long past time to stop calling fair pay, paid leave, and child care “women’s issues” and recognize that these are economic issues, period.
A new Democratic President will face Republican obstruction. All the more reason to make much more determined use of the bully pulpit to change hearts and minds. Even more important, the next President must make much earlier and more aggressive use of the office’s rule-making power. There is no reason to wait until the final two years of an eight-year Administration to aggressively use that authority. Franklin Roosevelt famously told a group of labor leaders who were lobbying him, “I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it.” Progressive advocates will need to hold the next President’s feet to the fire to ensure that action is taken on the issues of most concern to working women and their families.