03/08/2013 02:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Minimum Wage Is a Women's Issue

Today is International Women's Day, and all over the world people are celebrating women -- their economic and civic empowerment, their courage in the face of inequality, their role in everything from ensuring peace and security to fighting poverty and hunger.

At the U.S. Department of Labor, we have always fought for women's economic rights. The department's Wage and Hour Division and its Women's Bureau lead our efforts to ensure hardworking women receive a fair wage for the work they do. President Obama has proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour and indexing it to the cost of living by 2015, because people who work full time should not live in poverty. Sixty percent of the 15 million workers who would benefit from this proposal are women, and many of them are the primary breadwinners for their families. For them, this is a matter of economic urgency.

In recent weeks, Acting Secretary of Labor Seth Harris has visited with low-wage workers in several communities. He wanted to hear the stories of surviving on the minimum wage directly from the workers themselves. What we have heard over and over again in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Orlando, Boston and Pittsburgh are stories of struggle, but also heroic optimism and the tremendous will to provide for our families, those very qualities that define us as a country. In Cleveland, Acting Secretary Harris met Kizzie Simmons, a nursing assistant and single mother of three who worries that she will have to tell her college-bound daughter that she won't be able to afford tuition payments.

When we hear stories from workers like Kizzie, we are reminded that raising the minimum wage is the right thing to do -- not just for them, but for the next generation. Kizzie's unsinkable spirit is exactly what we celebrate today.

In fact, stories like Kizzie's have inspired our work now for 100 years. During this centennial week at the Labor Department, we celebrate the pioneering work of our predecessors to secure fair wages. As long ago as 1918, the Women's Bureau demonstrated a forward-looking commitment to female wage-earners, providing assistance to states in determining minimum wage rates that recognized the needs of women, conducting research on living costs for single women, and publishing reports that strongly influenced the policies of the era. Building on that early work, the nation's first female Cabinet secretary, Frances Perkins, championed wage and hour standards with the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. The Women's Bureau was instrumental in ensuring that law included provisions preventing pay discrimination on the basis of sex.

That legislation established the minimum wage and created the department's Wage and Hour Division, which has led the fight for fair wages. Although the enactment of the FLSA was a major step forward, many workers, often women, were left out. Initially, large groups of workers in woman-dominated fields like laundries, restaurants, nursing homes, public schools and domestic service were excluded from wage and overtime protections. Since then, the law has been expanded to cover workers in these and other sectors. But our work is not done. There are still workers who are excluded from the FLSA's protections.

For example, a 1974 amendment to the FLSA created an exemption from the minimum wage and overtime requirements for "companions," individuals who visit with elderly or infirm family members in their homes. Today, there is a robust and fast-growing home care industry that provides professional care workers to families who need help caring for their loved ones. There are nearly two million direct care workers -- more than 90 percent of them are women -- who work hard to provide the home health care and assistance that enables our family members to lead dignified and productive lives. Yet under the current FLSA rules, they are not entitled to minimum wage and overtime protections. That's just wrong. It is unacceptable that more than one-third of them rely on public assistance like food stamps and Medicaid just to scrape by. And that's why the department has proposed amending the FLSA rules so that home care workers will be entitled to minimum wage and overtime. Their hard work and devotion should be recognized and rewarded with a fair wage.

We are inspired every day by the strength and dignity of women who work so hard to make lives better for others. Even in the face of enormous adversity, they refuse to give up. And we refuse to give up on them. Let's recognize International Women's Day by saying a simple "thank you" to women like Kizzie Simmons for their hard work for their families and ours. But let's also take the next step and show our true appreciation by fighting for a higher minimum wage and for the workplace protections they have earned and deserve.

Latifa Lyles is the acting director of the Women's Bureau, and Mary Beth Maxwell is the acting deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division at the U.S. Department of Labor