How US Working Women Are Being Run Over

(Image: The New Press)(Image: The New Press)The gender gap has not closed for most women at work, and “leaning in” won’t fix this. In Under the Bus, Caroline Fredrickson details the inequities faced by temporary and part-time workers, immigrant women, farm workers, small business employees and domestic workers – in other words, the majority of working women. Click here to order the book now with a contribution to Truthout!

Also see: Financial Exploitation of Women in the Workplace Is the Canary in the Coal Mine

The following is an excerpt from Under the Bus:

Women occupy jobs that are excluded from legal protections, making the workers very easy to exploit and underpay. Even when there are protective laws, they are easy for employers to ignore, because there is very little enforcement. So, in addition to dominating the low-wage workforce, women, particularly women of color, dominate the unregulated or minimally regulated workforce. These facts have a growing relevance because not only is this group already surprisingly large, but these jobs are also the ones more and more people will hold in coming years. Projections for job growth forecast that, in the future, we will see the biggest increase in job categories that are low paid and currently dominated by women. As more and more men are shut out of manufacturing jobs with decent wages, men are facing these same conditions. Stephanie Coontz, a frequent commentator on women and work, wrote in the New York Times that “millions of men face working conditions that traditionally characterized women’s lives: low wages, minimal benefits, part-time or temporary jobs, and periods of joblessness. Poverty is becoming de-feminized because the working conditions of many men are becoming more feminized.”

Families are changing and women’s wages have become necessary for families to stay afloat. So the fact that women dominate sectors of the workforce covered by few, if any, protective laws means that their families suffer as well. If we ever had an Ozzie and Harriet family structure, it is surely gone now. A lifestyle that used to require one man’s salary now takes two incomes to meet expenses. For poorer families, those in the lower 20 percent of income, the importance of women’s wages is even greater, with more than 66 percent of women bringing in as much as or more than their husbands.

Not surprisingly, the challenges for single mothers are even more substantial. While more than three-quarters of high-income working women are married or have a partner who works full-time, only 14 percent of low-income women workers are in such relationships. In a growing number of families, women are the sole earners; these households are our economy’s poorest segment. Between 1970 and 2009, the percentage of single working mothers with children under eighteen doubled, and right now almost four in ten American mothers serve as the only breadwinners for their families. This increase has been accompanied by a corresponding growth in the number of children of single mothers who are poor. In 1959, 24 percent of such children were below the poverty line; in 2010, 55 percent of children living with a single mother were poor. To look at it another way, in 2009, 28 percent of unmarried working women with children earned less than the poverty level, compared to only 8 percent of all women workers. The adverse impact on these children, and our nation’s future, is substantial.

Even for women and families who do have some job protections and have two incomes, many do not have family leave, either paid or unpaid. Most families find the cost of child care staggering, with far too few slots in Head Start and other early education programs, and private child care taking up a third or more of many families’ budgets. The cost of child care rivals that of college tuition, and the quality of the facilities and teachers is often suspect. A professor at Baruch College in Manhattan with a PhD in anthropology, Carla Bellamy brings in $74,000 per year, putting her in the group of higher earners, but even with her composer husband’s income bringing them up to $110,000 per year, they struggle to pay for child care for their two children. There’s nothing left over for anything nonessential. She said, “Our entire disposable income goes to child care…. It’s not a tragic story, but is tiring and tiresome. I have a career, I work really hard, and yet I get no break.” She was even tempted to take a second job waiting tables during her summers off but needed the time to do the writing and research essential to keeping her teaching job – publish or perish is a truism in academe.

So how did we get into this sad state of affairs? We tend to think things are not so bad – maybe not in Sweden’s league in gender equality, but not in the Stone Age either. After all, we have banned discrimination against women, required equal pay for equal work, and adopted family leave legislation. But most people do not know that we allow discrimination by small employers and leave more than half of women out of the family leave law. Or that we cut certain workers out of the wage and hour laws. Or that part-time workers are rarely entitled to benefits. Child care breaks the bank for many families, and very few workers have paid family leave. A confluence of factors, including race, ethnicity, immigration status, and gender, has put an array of workers beyond the protections of the law. Domestic workers, farmworkers, day laborers, tipped employees, minimum-wage workers, guest workers, workers in so-called right-to-work states, independent contractors, and temps are all thrown under the bus. And over the years this contingent of workers has grown as more women enter the workforce, unions decline, industrial jobs disappear, and our population becomes browner.

Beneath all this is a history of racism and sexism upon which the structure of our labor protections was built. Through both direct and intentional efforts spearheaded by legislators during the New Deal to exclude workers based on their race and sex, and the statutory limitations built into later laws, certain workers have slipped through the holes in our porous system of labor protections. In each case, vulnerable groups were the bargaining chips for the policy’s enactment. This is not to blame the leaders, women and men, who fought so hard to achieve the protections we have. At every step in the process, some of those seated at the table were trying their best to create good policy, but to do so they felt they had to give something up. Over and over it was women – especially women of color – who were left out. In the case of the New Deal legislation protecting workers’ rights to join a union and to earn overtime after forty hours of work in a week, Senate Dixiecrats conditioned their votes on the exclusion of household workers and field hands so wealthy southeners could continue to benefit from these workers’ cheap labor. Charles Hamilton Houston, the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), described the Social Security Act when it passed in the 1930s “as a sieve with the holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.”
Unfortunately the holes in the sieve have not been filled, and many, particularly women of color, are still falling through.

When you layer the Family and Medical Leave Act on top of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you can see that each time political compromises were made to get legislation passed, certain women, often the same women, got shut out – and by design. Over time, as the United States developed and augmented its labor protections, the poor, the immigrant, and African American and Latino workers have been left out – and a disproportionate number of these are women. A nanny, for example, faces legally acceptable discrimination – it is absolutely legal for an employer to fire a woman because of her sex or refuse to hire a nanny because she is black – has no provisions for leave if she is having a child of her own, and can be forced to work long hours without overtime, all because of the size and type of her employer.

Right now, the path to prosperity is steep for most families. They struggle to get by on two incomes (if they are lucky), with few benefits, unpredictable work schedules, limited sick leave, and unaffordable child care. It is clear that Americans want change – all races at all levels of the income scale. We work too hard, our families suffer from neglect, and we have little time to pursue the intangible good things in life allowed by a bit of time for oneself. Wages, hours, leave, and child care – each demands a new way of thinking, where we abandon our traditional assumptions about how the workplace should be structured. We can no longer relegate the fight for a fair and equal workplace to a discussion at the “women’s caucus” or describe policies addressing child care and family leave as “women’s issues.” And we cannot allow the conversation to be dominated by the issues facing corporate CEOs and high-level bureaucrats.

With respect to wages, for our nation’s fiscal health, as well as for women and their families, eliminating the gap between men’s and women’s wages would have a significant and positive impact. Economists estimate that bringing women’s wages up to a level equal to that of men would raise women’s earnings by more than 17 percent, and family incomes would climb yearly by almost $7,000 per family, or $245.3 billion nationwide. A key element of lifting women’s wages is combating occupational segregation and improving enforcement of discrimination laws, which will enable more women to earn higher wages and expand the opportunities available to both sexes. We have to stop treating workers like machine parts and we have to end on-call and justin-time staffing, where workers’ schedules are arbitrarily changed, creating havoc in child care arrangements and financial plans. Benefits need to be decoupled from full-time status to ensure that employers are not encouraged to drop workers’ hours to avoid providing health care or family leave. And we must finally adopt a paid sick leave and family leave policy. Our current laissez-faire approach means that many mothers, and not only those who are low income, are forced to give birth and immediately come back to work, with negative consequences for both mother and child. And a country without a child care system disserves working parents, their children, and our nation’s future. Our current expensive, and mostly private, system provides decent care to few families and affordable care to almost none. We should provide universal, affordable child care. Most important, we need to expand the labor protections we do provide to all workers and not exclude certain workers because of their job titles or employer size or because they have been designated as a temp or a contractor. In essence, we need to consider whether the “system” as a whole works or not – and make systemic and not narrowly targeted changes so that we can all benefit, and no one is left out, intentionally or otherwise.

Many authors have examined the plight of these different types of workers; lots of historians have noted the separate instances when loopholes in the safety net were created; everybody now knows that median living standards are stagnating or declining in America. This book puts it all together, explaining how this huge and growing segment of the workforce – overwhelmingly female and of color – was created, how and why it is growing, and how if we don’t fix this problem, all American workers will be swallowed by this trend.

So while the media debate “opt out” and “lean in,” the real focus should be those who are “left out.” Women work, and increasingly they are filling jobs with few benefits, low wages, and unpredictable schedules. Even middle-class Americans are suffering from the consequences of the changes in our workplaces and the need for two incomes. Our workplace laws threw women of color under the bus from the beginning, but we will all get run over if we don’t reinvent our system to get everyone on board.

Copyright (2015) by Caroline Fredrickson. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, The New Press.

Footnotes to the excerpt can be found in full version of the book.