We Need To Value Black Women's Labor

Fifty-three years after Americans were promised equal pay, Black women are still far behind. But it is not too late to make up the difference. Let's move forward from this Labor Day demanding change.
09/14/2016 12:30 pm ET Updated Sep 03, 2017

Co-authored with Charmaine Davis, 9to5 Georgia State Director.

As we return to work after celebrating the contributions of workers this Labor Day, we can't ignore the reality that the contributions of certain groups of workers continue to be devalued. August 23, barely over two weeks ago, was Black Women's Equal Pay Day. The day recognizes the time in the year when Black women's earnings from the prior year catch up to those of White men, the highest earners. Black women must work an extra 8 months into the new year, for a total of 20 months, to be paid what White men were paid in the 12 months of the previous calendar year.

This isn't a new problem. In 1963, when the Equal Pay Act was signed into law, women on average were paid 59 cents for every dollar paid to men. Today, 53 years later, Black women are paid just 60 cents for every dollar paid White men. What is even more shocking is that this year we saw the gap between what White men and Black women earn increase by four cents! Yes, you read that right, the wage gap for Black women actually grew larger in 2016. We are going backwards!

According to the Center for American Progress, the pay gap is more deeply felt by African American women because women of color frequently work in lower-paying jobs, work fewer hours, and experience more substantial family caregiving burdens. At first glance, one might conclude that the gap wouldn't be as severe for Black women if they simply chose better paying jobs, worked more hours and took on fewer caregiving responsibilities.

But Black women are not choosing lower paying jobs; historically the jobs predominantly done by African American women have been compensated at lower rates even when they require the same skill level as higher paying jobs. In 1935, in a compromise to get southern legislators to vote for minimum wage and social security laws, Congress excluded domestic workers and agricultural workers from coverage of both. Why? 60% of domestic workers were African American women, and 60% of agricultural workers were Black.

Today, Black women continue to be over-represented in fields like domestic work and child care. Child care workers are paid less than dog trainers and janitors, almost 40 percent less than all other workers.

What about the argument that Black women experience this pay gap because they work fewer hours than White men? According to a 2015 study by the National Partnership for Women and Families, the gap exists even in the 20 states with the largest number of African-American women working full-time and year-round.

Race and gender bias and discrimination play a significant role in the unequal compensation Black women receive, and the connection between their pay gap and Black women's lack of access to workplace policies like paid leave, paid sick days and family sick days cannot be denied. Forty-two percent of working Black women lack access to a single paid sick day at work. This means Black women, who already report high levels of family caregiving responsibilities, lose pay and may face being fired when they need to care for an ill family member or their own health.

Let's call on our elected officials and candidates - after all, there is an election right around the corner! - to support federal legislation that will help close the pay gap for Black women.

We need laws that establish basic labor standards, so that no one's income or job is at risk when they need to care for their family - laws like the Healthy Families Act and the FAMILY Act, to guarantee job-protected paid sick days and paid leave to care for serious illness and childbirth. We want to see action on the Paycheck Fairness Act, to hold employers more accountable for pay inequities, and the Raise the Wage Act, to increase minimum wage and eliminate the sub-minimum tipped wage, both issues that predominantly affect women of color. We also need the WAGE Act, to strengthen workers' right to organize into unions.

As we celebrated Labor Day with end-of-summer barbecues and parades, we need to remember that those of us with regular work schedules had this long weekend courtesy of labor unions that fought over the decades for reasonable work hours, paid time off and other key worker protections. No surprise, women in unions fare much better than their non-union counterparts. In 2015, women who were union members typically made $231 more in median weekly earning than those who were not.

Union members are almost twice as likely to receive overtime pay or comp time than non-union working women. And unionized women have greater access to the myriad policies that protect workers' pay, like paid family leave, paid sick days, family health care and pension plans.

According to the Black Women's Roundtable Black Women in the States, Progress and Challenges report, Black women covered by a union contract earn higher wages and benefits than women of all races and ethnicities who are not unionized. In fact, for Black women in low-wage jobs, union membership was a greater factor than education in determining increased wages and benefits.

Fifty-three years after Americans were promised equal pay, Black women are still far behind. But it is not too late to make up the difference. Let's move forward from this Labor Day demanding change.