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Equal Pay Day a reminder of injustice for women workers

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The author Joi Owens speaking at a rally for equal pay in Mississippi earlier this year.

Some women suffer more from unequal pay than others, but there are six ways to make pay more fair

Joi Owens is an attorney and single mother in Jackson, Mississippi, where she currently serves as the Gulf Coast policy officer for Oxfam America.

Today is “Equal Pay Day” in the US: a day that marks the point in the calendar when a man could start working, and still earn what a woman will make for the entire year.

This day rolls around every year. In the year 2018, we know that this pay gap does not make sense.

I personally know how important this is because I’m a single mom of a wonderful eight-year-old boy. Being a single parent is challenging, and being a single mother is a long bumpy road.

I had him when I was in my first year of law school. To put it simply, I struggled immensely. I was receiving public assistance, including TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). But, with a lot of hard work and perseverance, we made it through school and into the workplace. Today, I have a career where I put in long hours to provide a happy home for my child.

 

Despite all this effort, however, I’m well aware that I still live in a society that does not value my work as much –simply because of my gender. And this hurts not just me, but my family. My son is smart, kind, and talented. He deserves all the opportunities that would be available to him if I were a man, and made the same kind of money that men do.

Equal pay for equal work

Of course, women have come a long way, and do a lot of jobs today. We are doctors, lawyers, engineers, factory workers, firefighters, members of the police force, and so much more–and our work is as meaningful as any man’s. We have daughters and sons who depend on us to bring our fair share home. We work hard and long hours, and it’s time that our pay reflects that.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963 both demand equal pay for equal work, yet we still see disparities in pay. Sadly, these gaps grow ever wider when we look at the statistics for women of color, and for women in the South (especially Mississippi).

While the national average is that women make 80 cents for every dollar a man makes, women in Mississippi earn just 75 cents. Black women earn 63 cents against men across the country; Latinas earn 54 cents. [These statistics may vary slightly by source; these are from the American Association of University Women.]

What would it mean for women in Mississippi to close this gap? Median annual pay for a woman working full-time in Mississippi is $31,110; for a man, it’s $41,092. This differential, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF) would pay for a lot of things: almost 14 months of rent, or more than nine months of mortgage and utility payments, or about 78 weeks (one and a half years) of food for her family.

Women are becoming the breadwinners of more and more families, and they should be paid as such. Single moms head 78,000 households living in poverty in Mississippi, and closing this gap would allow these families to break the cycle of poverty. Moreover, for the 60 percent of Mississippi university degrees that are earned by women, it gives them a reason to stay in Mississippi, instead of moving to other states that protect equal pay for equal work. 

So what are some possible solutions? The NPWF suggests the following: 

  1. Enact protections to help identify and challenge discriminatory pay and employment practices and address gender-based occupational segregation.
  2. Increase the minimum wage.
  3. Offer family-friendly workplace supports like paid family and medical leave and paid sick days. 
  4. Provide affordable child care. 
  5. Ensure access to comprehensive reproductive health care. 
  6. Remove the “past salary” section on job applications (to prevent employers from offering pay based on previous amounts, rather than workplace standards).

All of this is especially stark for women in my state of Mississippi, one of only two states in the nation (along with Alabama) that does not have an Equal Pay bill on the books. Last year, when the effort last failed in Mississippi, several other states passed bills to close the pay gap (California, Colorado, Delaware, Nevada, Oregon and Puerto Rico). It’s been 55 years since President Kennedy signed the federal Equal Pay Act into law.

We’ll try again this year, as the legislature goes into session; hopefully we can raise the issue above the long-standing partisan divide, and put something on the books that offers hope to me, and the many women around me–all of us working hard and struggling to get by.

It’s well past time for our economy, and legislature, to recognize that women need to earn the same wages for the same work. Our families, and our future, depend on it.

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