For Minnesota’s women workers, ‘Equal Pay Day’ no cause for celebration

Cf3CzUvXIAAbKqbWomen working in Minnesota will earn $382,360 less than their male counterparts, on average, over the course of a 40-year career. As bad as that sounds, Minnesota’s lifetime wage gap is actually better than the national average.

Pay disparities between women and men are in the spotlight today on “Equal Pay Day,” but it’s not a holiday worth celebrating. Rather, April 12 marks the date the average woman worker finally will achieve the same earnings taken home by the average man in 2015.

Nationally, women employed in full-time, year-round work are paid, on average, 79 cents for every dollar paid to men – a rate that has held steady for roughly the last decade.

In Minnesota, where the wage gap is 81 cents on the dollar, lawmakers took aim at workplace inequities two years ago, raising the state’s minimum wage – most workers who earn it are women – and passing the Women’s Economic Security Act.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, a DFLer from St. Paul, was a leading proponent of WESA. She said it’s already delivered results, in part, by steering technical and financial assistance to women-owned small businesses and introducing women and girls to careers in high-wage, high-demand jobs traditionally held by men – including construction. WESA grants have helped provide training for close to 3,000 women, according to the state Office on the Economic Status of Women (OESW).

WESA also provides new workplace accommodations for pregnant or nursing mothers, and it requires contractors that do business with the state to provide proof they are meeting “equal-pay-for-equal-work” laws.

“We have almost 700 companies that have signed the certification to say, ‘Yes, we are meeting these requirements,’” Pappas said. “As we debated the bill, businesses testified that they thought this was too hard. ‘We can’t do this,’ they said. Well 700 of them have managed to do it so far.”

WESA is just one step forward in narrowing the wage gap, and even its fiercest advocates acknowledge more work remains to be done.

Expanding paid family leave and earned sick and safe time to all workers – proposals currently being debated at the Legislature – would keep Minnesota moving in the right direction, ensuring women workers don’t have to choose between keeping their families healthy and earning a paycheck.

So, too, would greater access to affordable, quality child care. Quality child care costs more in Minnesota than all but two other states, according to OESW. A single mother with one infant would pay, on average, 89 percent of her income to place her child in accredited, center-based care, leaving too many women with no choice but to opt out of working full time.

An investment in child care also would boost wages for child care workers, 95 percent of whom are women. Average pay in the industry is less than $10 per hour.

It’s just one example, Pappas said, of a female-dominated occupation plagued by low wages.

“A percentage of the pay gap is due to the fact that women go into these jobs that are not paid very well,” Pappas said. “As a society, we don’t value these professions like child care and teaching enough, and the wages show it.”

Lawmakers like St. Paul Rep. Rena Moran are also pushing initiatives to address the “disparity within the disparity” – the far greater wage gap that exists for women of color.

An analysis of 2014 Census Bureau data – the most recent available – by the National Women’s Law Center found African American and Native American women in Minnesota will earn, on average, more than $830,000 less than men over the course of a 40-year career. For Minnesota’s Latina women workers, the gap is more than $1 million.

“That has to change if we’re going to create true economic equity,” Moran said.

The Women of Color Opportunities Act, authored by Moran, would target academic assistance to girls of color in public schools, train women of color in financial literacy, introduce them to non-traditional career opportunities and provide grants and assistance to small businesses owned by minority women.

There’s no silver-bullet solution to narrowing the wage gap, of course. But collective bargaining has proven to be among the most effective answers.

Among union members nationwide, women working full time earn about 91 percent of what their male counterparts make, according to the NWLC. At 9 cents, the union wage gap isn’t perfect, but it beats the national average by 57 percent.

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