The Wage Gap Persists for a Reason

07/30/2017 11:05 am ET Updated Jul 30, 2017

It’s time again to recognize the day when the earnings of black women catch up with the previous year’s earnings of white, non-Hispanic, (a.k.a. white) men. Yes, black women work more than 19 months to earn the same wages that white men earn in 12 months. This wage gap persists for many reasons, often related to structural racism and sexism in hiring and promotions. But there are other factors.

Work remains highly gendered.

Most women and men don’t do the same jobs, and the jobs women do are disproportionately and historically underpaid. Why do we pay the people who care for young children less than those who work on cars? Because the childcare providers do for a living what women historically have done in their families for no pay. We can’t solve that problem until we remove gender and race as criteria in compensation and root out the legacy of past discrimination. And we can’t solve this problem until we name who stands in the way of pay equity.

This is a Philadelphia story.

In January 2017, the Philadelphia city council passed a pay equity law to prohibit employers from asking about previous pay history. Council Member Blondell Reynolds Brown, the Majority Whip, was one of the leaders in this victory. As a black woman, she was clear how pegging wages to previous pay traps women in a lower wage base. It especially limits the economic advancement of women of color, whose previous employers are more likely to pay lower wages. The Philadelphia win was significant – it meant that women, especially low-income women and women of color would earn wages based on the value of the job, not what they earned in years past.

But in an effort to deny local leaders the freedom to govern and citizens the right to improve economic conditions for their neighbors, the Chamber of Commerce challenged the pay equity law in court. When a judge upheld the law, the business interests and 13 large corporations lobbied the state legislature to preempt it.

Preemption, or state interference, is a tool where lobbyists and “low road” employers deny the local voters and their duly elected representatives the democratic right to enact laws that benefit that community. These special interest groups win when state legislators undermine the will of the public and value profits over people. This pay equity preemption law, which passed the state Senate and now sits in the PA House of Representatives, got traction after the big business lobbyists claimed it would just be too “complicated” to pay people fairly. These same lobbyists also oppose paid sick days, paid leave, minimum wage increases, the freedom to organize and other policies that improve family life.

The opposition is happening on a national level too.

On July 24, the House Appropriations Committee began the process of defunding one of President Obama’s strategies to combat wage inequities. Under the previous administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) required large firms to submit pay data based on race, gender and job category. This effort helps document how employers are paying their workers. Defunding this valuable tool will maintain wage disparities by race and gender. If there’s no documentation, the opposition says there’s no problem.

The efforts to maintain unequal pay are well organized. These special interest groups convince our state and national elected officials to support policies that hurt black women, their families and their communities. The result is that black women earn .63 cents for every dollar earned by white men. Over a 40-year career, that pay loss amounts to $840,000. Educational attainment and level of profession have little impact. Black women have to sacrifice food, clothing, housing, college savings for their children, retirement savings and more because of the wage gap.

The best way to close the gap is unions.

The wage gap for union women is nearly half that experienced by non-union women, improving wage parity for black women overall. Think about it: unions raise wages for lower to middle earners. By bringing everyone up, they peg wages to reasonable guidelines and not previous salaries; they negotiate increases in a transparent way; and in most cases, the wage levels are public - no secrets. The fact that black people, especially women, are more likely to sign a union card suggests their understanding of the union advantage as a key economic equalizer.

Here are some solutions for addressing the pay gap. Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act which amends the Equal Pay Act to among other things prohibit pay secrecy, and permit civil action against violators who break the law. Increase the minimum wage. Support unionization across the country as a tool for reducing pay inequalities and building worker power. Fight to eliminate pay secrecy and to prohibit wage history as a factor in setting salaries. Tell legislators that state interference laws deny residents the freedom to shape local laws and improve their lives. And work each day to end racism and sexism in our society.

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