Closing The Gap

The coronavirus pandemic further highlights why women workers need equal pay

Joe Amon | MediaNews Group | Denver Post | Getty Images

This year, Equal Pay Day lands on March 31, which is the symbolic date that marks how far into the year the average woman must work to catch up to the pay a man earned the previous year. 

On average, full-time working women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns, which adds up to $407,760 in lost wages over a 40-year career, according to the National Women's Law Center (NWLC). For women of color, this wage gap is even worse as black, Native American and Latina women earn 62 cents, 57 cents and 54 cents for every dollar a white, non-Hispanic man earns, respectively.  

As the world continues to grapple with the widespread impact of the coronavirus pandemic, this Equal Pay Day is not just a reminder that women everywhere deserve to earn a fair wage. Today, it's crucial to put a spotlight on the urgent need to better protect low-wage workers, who are overwhelmingly women and are overwhelmingly affected by the current health crisis.

Today, women make up two-thirds of the roughly 23.8 million workers in the 40 lowest-paying jobs in America, reports the NWLC. These roles include home health aides, child-care workers, retail cashiers, waitresses and hotel housekeepers. Over the past month, some of these industries have lost thousands of jobs due to the economic impact of the coronavirus. In other cases, women are on the front lines, risking their lives to provide essential services, often for little pay or protections.

Retail employees help customers at the checkout registers inside a store in Torrance, California.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Women in low-wage roles and the pay gap they face

The number of women in low-wage domestic and caregiving roles is "partly a product of our cultural stereotypes and biases," as women are still seen as being the primary caretakers of the family, Maya Raghu, a wage expert at NWLC, tells CNBC Make It.

Today, more than 75% of caregivers are women, with women being more than twice as likely as men to take a less demanding job due to the extra responsibility of caring for their family, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance.

"This is also tied to the reason that women are the majority of part-time workers," adds Raghu. "Some of these low-paying jobs are shift jobs so women can work in those jobs and try to be available at certain times to take care of their families."

Among workers ages 25 to 54, women are three to five times more likely to work in a part-time role than men, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Regardless of whether women choose to work part-time or full-time, Raghu points out that women in both high-wage and low-wage roles still face a gender pay gap that has a huge impact on their long-term earnings.

In higher-paying roles, such as nursing, where women make up more than 85% of the workforce, women earn a median salary of $65,000 per year, compared to men who earn a median salary of $71,000. In lower-paying positions like home health aides, women lose an average of $417 per month due to the wage gap, according to NWLC data. Meanwhile, women in retail and waitressing lose an average of $250 and $500 per month to the wage gap, respectively. 

With women of color holding a majority of low-wage roles, Raghu says this pay gap is linked to gaps in both gender and racial wealth in America. "If you are in a low-paying job, you're living paycheck to paycheck," she says. "And if you're being shortchanged by a gender wage gap on top of that, then it is incredibly difficult to start building savings that can translate into wealth."

Home health aide
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Long-term impact of low wages and no benefits

Today's pandemic shines "a spotlight on the major cracks in our economic structure and underscores a desperate need for equity," says Kim Churches, CEO of the American Association of University Women.

In 2017, 41% of mothers were the sole or primary breadwinners of their household, earning at least half of their total family income, according to the Center for American Progress. When broken down by race, the Center for American Progress found that black mothers were most likely to be the main source of income in their family out of all racial groups, with 68.3% of black mothers being the sole breadwinner for their household.

With their income being critical to their families' economic security, women in low-wage roles face a financial crisis as child-care centers, restaurants and hotels shut down and remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"As we think about this pandemic and the long-term economic impact, you know women in these roles don't have savings, they don't have wealth access to credit and women overall are more likely than men to be poor or struggling economically," says Churches. 

As a result of the pay gap and over-representation in low-wage jobs, women over the age of 65 are much more likely than men to live at or below the poverty line, reports the Economic Policy Institute. "Retired women have less savings, fewer pensions and collect less social security because of the gender wage gap that's followed them through life," Churches adds.

Both Churches and Raghu agree that today's global pandemic also underscores the need for everyone to have access to basic employee benefits like paid leave. 

Today, roughly 24% of American workers do not get paid sick leave, with many of these workers being low-wage employees. Though the federal government passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provides paid leave to employees of government agencies and companies with 500 or fewer workers, there is no bill in place that protects the right for all workers to have access to paid time off. 

"I think there's a whole lot of legal and policy changes that we need as well as cultural changes in order to help move women out of low-wage jobs and into careers where they can advance," says Raghu. In addition to paying women equally, she says "we also need to provide more women with paid sick leave, paid family and medical leave, not just on an emergency basis but on a permanent basis."

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