Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Happy (Un)Equal Pay Day: Compared to men, Washington women earning 7 days’ pay for every 10 days of work

Imagine working side by side with someone who does the same job as you do. But while your co-worker is paid weekly, you get one week’s pay for every 10 days of work. That’s the reality of working life for thousands of Washington’s working women — and it’s the impetus for Equal Pay Day, which represents how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned the year prior.

In 2009, women in the middle of the earnings spectrum were paid just 76% of men’s hourly wage – the same percentage as in 1993. While today’s families are more dependent than ever on women’s wages, Washington women earn $15,000 less per year, and nearly $5.00 less per hour, than men. The gender earnings disparity grows with age. Among 22 to 24 year-olds, a women’s average monthly earnings are just 77% of men’s. Among 45- to 55 year olds, women average only 60% of male earnings.

While the gap between men’s and women’s participation in the job market in 2009 was as small as it has ever been — at 11% compared to 26% in 1980 — workplaces remain almost as segregated by gender as they were two decades ago. Women’s share of construction jobs has inched up – but only to 17%. And the workforce in dentists’ offices and childcare centers looks very much like it did decades ago. There may be more women dentists now, but hygienists, dental assistants, and dental receptionist continue to be almost exclusively female , as do childcare teachers.

Retail jobs overall are divided fairly evenly between men and women, but women hold more than three-fourths of jobs in clothing stores and close to that level in health and personal care shops, but just one-third of building and garden supply retail jobs and only 21% of auto parts store jobs. In the information sector, the workforce has changed significantly, but away from rather than towards equality. Women held almost half of jobs in 1990. As software publishing has taken off and wireless communications have replaced more traditional forms, women’s share of jobs has fallen to only 35%. In the highly paid subcomponent of software publishing, women’s representation declined from 40% in 1990 to only 26% now, even as employment in that field expanded.

Women “choose” different occupations and are far more likely than men to work part time in part because they are usually responsible for the majority of family care. Mothers spend more than three times more time each day than fathers caring for children. Women also perform 70% of elder care, with daughters twice as likely as their brothers to care for aging parents, and wives more likely to care for their parents-in-law than husbands are for their own parents.

An important contributor to economic security is the ability of workers to take paid sick leave, both to access routine and preventative medical care and to care for their own or a family member’s illness. Without paid leave, workers lose needed family income and often face workplace sanctions when forced to take time off. And the pressure to work through an illness or postpone medical care can undermine long term health and lead to more costly complications own the road. But today’s workplace policies do not reflect the fact that in most families, both adults are in the wage labor force.

Although they remain responsible for the majority of family care, women are especially unlikely to have sick leave because of lower earnings and part-time work. Just 38% of Washington employers provided sick leave to full-time workers in 2008 and 12.5% to part-time, down from 56% and 22% in 2002.   Workers in food service and retail are particularly unlikely to have access to sick leave, putting the general public at risk of contagious disease – especially a public health risk in a period when new viruses and a mobile population increase the risk of epidemics. Lower income workers are also much less likely than high income workers to receive paid leave. An Institute for Women’s Policy Research model estimates that in Washington 41% of workers – 1.2 million – do not have access to paid sick leave.

The U.S. is also alone among economically developed nations in lacking universal paid leave for new parents, as well as other minimum standards for paid leave.  Only 8% of employees in the U.S. receive paid family leave from their employers, and 4 in 10 workers lack paid sick leave.

Without universally accessible paid sick leave, paid family leave, and workplace flexibility, women will not make further gains in economic security and equality. Four decades after the revolution in women’s workforce participation, it is clear that these changes will not happen voluntarily. Just as new laws were necessary but not sufficient to end gender and racial discrimination, so too the passage of laws guaranteeing access to paid leave and flexibility will be necessary for women to come closer to achieving equality at work.

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