Green-collar Jobs: Equal Pay for Equal Work

05/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today is Equal Pay Day, a national day of awareness to draw attention to the lingering gap between women's and men's wages.

Why today?

Because it is not until today, April 28, 2009, that the average woman's earnings have caught up to the average man's earnings -- from 2008. Women who work full time earn just 78 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make. The gap is even more acute for women of color: African American women earn only 69 cents and Latinas just 59 cents to every man's dollar.

But we have a chance now to make pay equity real for women across the country. We can invest in a new, green economy that asserts the principles of pay equity from its very inception.

The old, pollution-based economy continues to fail on this score. The pay gap has narrowed only by about one percent since 2002. Women's median pay was less than men's in each and every one of the 20 industries and 25 occupations that the Census Bureau surveyed. Even men working in female-dominated occupations tend to earn more than women working in the same field. Despite some legislative strides, women are still not receiving equal pay for equal work. But we hope that will begin to change with green-collar jobs.

Green-collar jobs represent a new job sector, not yet caught in the history and inertia of pay inequity. We can make sure that pay parity is part of the foundation of these new green jobs. More, we can ensure these jobs provide family-supporting wages, or are an entry point to move low-income workers into higher-skilled occupations.

Right now, women make up 47 percent of the workforce. That number is expected to climb to 50 percent by 2010. With the number of female-headed households on the rise, wage inequities have serious repercussions on families' financial stability. This is magnified during economic crisis.

The recently passed $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is a bold and historic investment designed to kick-start the United States economy and lay the foundation for long-term economic growth and stability. This landmark legislation could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move the nation along an arc that bends towards justice, full inclusion, and pay equity.

The challenge, however, is the political and economic urgency to spend Recovery Act funds quickly in order to put large numbers of people back to work. This rush poses three separate and serious dangers: that money will be spent poorly; that most of the funding will go to projects that only reinforce the pollution-based economy's status quo (with wage disparities, and low-income people and communities of color at the smokestack end); and that jobs will only go to workers with the skills and connections necessary to get those jobs quickly, thereby reinforcing racial and economic inequity.

While swift action is critical to get the economy back on track, the need for deliberate speed shouldn't undermine the opportunity to utilize these dollars to transform the economy into one that is more just, is more green, and provides equal pay for equal work for all Americans.

Together, we must work to insert equity into the recovery implementation plans that states and localities are developing now. We must demand a transparent and accountable public process to shape how resources are spent. And, we must work in our communities, supporting grassroots leaders and organizations as they work to make the green recovery real for everyday people.

Above all, this means demanding jobs with equal pay for equal work and family-supporting wages with benefits.