How Our Workplace Policies Are Keeping Women Poor

2 years ago

Beyoncé—a performer, working mother, and American icon— shows many of us the woman we want to be. But to state the obvious, we can’t all work it like Beyoncé. Literally. We can’t work, raise a child, and pay our bills like Beyoncé can, because despite the national outpouring of positivity that followed her back-lit feminist power-silhouette at the VMA’s earlier this year, we still don’t have policies in place that allow working mothers—particularly working mothers in low-wage jobs, the overwhelming majority of whom are women of color—to make a decent living.


Image Credit: Donald Lee Pardue via Flickr

Our policies in the workplace reflect outdated values, and leave women in low-wage jobs in a state of frightening economic instability. Cultural change always precedes political change, but when our pop icons highlight a mainstream view that our policies don’t reflect, it’s clear that it’s time to make some changes.

Women working in low-wage jobs, like fast food and home care workers, are crippled by our country’s lack of paid sick day laws. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, a shocking 82% of low-wage workers don’t have access to paid sick days at all. Two-thirds of these low-wage workers are women, and the representation of women of color in the low-wage workforce is disproportionately high. The share of women of color in the 10 largest low-wage occupations is more than twice their share of the workforce overall at 36.8 percent, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Workers in these jobs work long, often-unpredictable hours, face high levels of stress and economic instability, and the toll on their mental and physical health is undeniable. Yet they can’t take the day off to recover from the flu or care for a child at home with strep throat. Any day they’re sick, or a family member is ill and needs to be taken care of, they don’t get paid, or worse, risk losing their job. Those who are the most vulnerable to economic catastrophe are the most exposed to the indifference of our workplace policies—and they are overwhelmingly women.

Women are the primary caregiver in the family in two out of three households. They are often the ones who are called to take a sick child home from school, or to an emergency doctor’s appointment. Women are also primary or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of all households. If they can’t pick up their sick kid without missing a crucial day’s pay, how are they supposed to both provide for and care for their family?

It’s not just a lack of paid sick days that make it hard for women and families to juggle work and family demands. Our policies have created a kind of perfect storm that make it nearly impossible for families to make it work. More than eight out of ten moms and nine out of ten dads work outside the home, making affordable child care a necessity. Yet in nearly half of US states, childcare costs are more than the average rent. And if that’s not bad enough, barely more than one in ten American workers have access to paid family leave. Current protections in Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) are woefully outdated and insufficient—40 percent of the workforce isn’t even covered, and those covered are only guaranteed unpaid leave. The overwhelming reason that people covered under the FMLA don’t take time off is because they can’t afford to. Why are we forcing working parents to choose between putting food on the table and being home with a newborn baby?

To add to the burden, working women in the United States are paid on average $11,000 less per year than men. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which would update the Equal Pay Act of and offer enforcement tools against wage discrimination, was blocked by Senate Republicans earlier this year. Taken together, these policies stack the deck against working families.

Studies show that we want candidates who believe that employers should treat workers fairly. Recent polling from Make It Work, a campaign I co-founded to advance economic security for working women, men, and families, found a significant majority of voters—over three quarters polled—would favor a candidate who supports increasing the minimum wage, requiring equal pay for equal work, creating paid family and sick leave, and providing affordable child and elder care. For all of our talk about family values, voters expect our politicians to make policies that value families.

This cultural momentum—our Beyoncé moment— presages the policy change that voters increasingly expect and will demand. It’s only a matter of time. Our current policies towards women and families in the workplace have no place in 2014. It’s time for all families to be able to make it work.

Vivien Labaton is the Co-Executive Director of Make It Work, a campaign to advance economic security for working women, men, and families.

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