Time for action on pay equity for women

Legislature should pass paid leave and $15 minimum wage

TODAY, WE OBSERVE International Women’s Day, as women across the globe call for gender equality. Here in Massachusetts, 2018 could be the year we make major strides towards pay equity for women.

In 2016, Massachusetts passed the strongest equal pay law in the country. When it goes into effect on July 1 of this year, the law will promote salary transparency, restrict employers from asking job candidates about their salary history, and give legal incentives to companies that conduct salary reviews. As part of the Equal Pay Coalition, our organizations, the Alliance for Business Leadership and the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, were early leaders in the fight for this legislation.

Requiring that men and women be paid equally for comparable work is a major step towards closing the wage gap, but we can’t declare victory yet. The Legislature has a chance to make more progress this year by passing two pieces of legislation that disproportionally benefit women’s wages: paid family and medical leave and a $15 minimum wage.

A January report from the Boston Women’s Workforce Council showed how much more work we have to do. The report, which analyzed 2017 wage data from Greater Boston companies, found that black women earn 52 cents on the dollar compared to white men, while Latina women earn only 49 cents on the dollar. Asian women earn 71 cents on the dollar compared to white men, and white women earn 75 cents on the dollar, according to the report.

Raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour over four years, as proposed in legislation currently pending at the State House and a potential ballot question this fall, would help close the wage gap because women, and especially women of color, are over-represented in industries that often pay low wages. These jobs include fast food, caregiving, clothing retail, restaurants, and cleaning. The people in these jobs are the backbone of our economy and make up multibillion-dollar industries yet, as a Commonwealth and as a country, we have a history of undervaluing women’s work. We can help fix this by raising the minimum wage.

Nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers in Massachusetts are women. Among all workers who would get a raise from a $15 minimum wage, including those whose pay would likely increase because they make slightly over $15 now, 56 percent are women. Nationally, more than 37 percent of women of color would receive a raise if the minimum wage rose to $15.

In addition to being over-represented in low-wage industries, women are more likely than men to leave a paying job due to caregiving responsibilities, whether for a new child or another family member. Creating a statewide paid family and medical leave insurance program, as proposed in another piece of legislation and corresponding ballot question, would ensure that workers who take off time from work to care for themselves, a child, or an ill family member still have income to pay their bills, and can return to their job without penalty.

Without paid leave, new mothers often drop from the labor force for periods of time to take care of their children, facing setbacks in their accumulated earnings. Paid leave combats the gender wage gap by helping new mothers maintain a level of wages that they would not have otherwise earned. Paid leave also helps keep women in the workforce after they have children. After paid leave was implemented in California, mothers were 13 to 18 percent more likely to return to work within a year after giving birth.

Based on gender norms, domestic responsibilities typically fall on women. However, in 2018 our family models have changed and paid leave gives everyone the option, regardless of gender, to prioritize family. It would help reduce the wage gap by encouraging men to take an equal amount of parental leave after the birth of a child. Countries that offer paternity leave are the most successful in closing the wage gap, and research shows paternity leave can lead to a more equitable distribution of child-rearing and domestic responsibilities, reducing pressure on working mothers to cut back on their hours at work.

We all know that women are disproportionately impacted by lower wages and face different pressures in the workforce after having children. This is not news. Every March, we hear the latest statistics about the pay gap and feel outraged about the inequity.  We’re counting on our legislators to take that outrage and turn it into action.

Meet the Author
This needs to be the year that we pass paid family and medical leave and a $15 minimum wage, and seriously tackle the wage gap in Massachusetts.

Nai Collymore-Henry is vice president for partnerships at the Alliance for Business Leadership and the former communications director of the Equal Pay Coalition during the campaign to pass Massachusetts’ pay equity law. Cindy Rowe is executive director of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action.