For Low-Income Women, Equal Pay Day Won’t Come Any Time Soon

Today is Equal Pay Day, the day in 2016 until which American women must work to make the same amount of income their male counterparts earned by the end of 2015. Or at least, it’s Equal Pay Day for the “average” woman, who earns roughly 79 cents for every dollar the average man makes. By contrast, African-American women earn 60.5 cents and Hispanic women earn 54.6 cents for every dollar a man earns.

The widespread usage of the 79 cents figure corresponds to a public dialogue around equal pay that focuses on women who earn salaries much higher than the minimum wage—women who work in offices but are excluded from C-suites. But, while it is true that the gender wage gap is larger among women with more education, women who have an advanced degree will also earn much more over a lifetime than those with less than a high school diploma. And the white, middle- and upper-class women who comprise the bulk of female office workers have radically different work experiences than low-income women.

The latter group of workers, often women of color and recent immigrants, earn very low pay with few opportunities for upward mobility. These disparate experiences among women raise the question of how to create an inclusive equal pay movement that both acknowledges the very real discrimination that professional women experience in the workplace while also ensuring their own advancement isn’t achieved on the backs of other women.

Unfortunately, the common focus on getting women access to high-paid and male-dominated fields—through encouraging women to “lean in”—obscures the fact that, for the many women who earn poverty wages and work without essential labor protections, equal pay won’t come any time soon.

Many of these women workers are people of color employed in care work. Women are over-represented in all sorts of care work, from professional jobs in teaching and nursing, to low-wage positions as nannies and home health aides. Care work—defined as any paid or unpaid role in which a worker cares for another person—can include cooking and cleaning as well as emotional labor like nurturance. A unique feature of this work is that it has historically been performed by family members, but is increasingly part of the labor market as more parents work outside of the home. But its growth in the labor market has been polarized, with large increases in low-wage and high-wage positions, but very little growth in the middle.

This trend has led sociologist Rachel Dwyer to hypothesize that job polarization in the labor market as a whole, characterized by a paucity of good middle-class jobs and growing income inequality, is a result of disparities in care work. This distribution is driven by the entry of more women into the formal workforce—often in care sectors themselves—who increasingly require the care work of others to balance career and family. Unsurprisingly, most of the high-wage job gains in care work have gone to white women, while most of the low-wage gains have accrued to non-white women, especially African-American women and Latinas. This phenomenon has reinforced racial divisions in the labor market and increased inequality among women, as seen in the discrepancies in the gender pay gap by race.

A feminist revolution that lifts up all women will not trickle down from highly visible professional women alone.

To move closer to gender equality, we must find mechanisms for empowerment of women in the formal workplace. Efforts towards workplace justice for all are already ongoing for many organizations, including those catering largely to moderate- and high-income women, like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). Still, centering issues that affect women of color, undocumented women, and those in low-wage care work jobs—and especially those who fall into all three categories—poses an ongoing challenge. Unlike pay equity for middle-class and high-income women, feminist advocacy that intersects with poverty and immigration policy is more complex, more prone to controversy, and sometimes just less sexy. Positive progress, like the recognition by NOW that immigration justice is a feminist issue in partnership with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, show that mobilizing mainstream women’s groups on a more diverse set of issues is possible.

And yet, a feminist revolution that lifts up all women—especially those who are most disenfranchised—will not trickle down from highly visible professional women alone. Policy actions to fairly value and compensate women’s work outside the office, especially in the domestic sphere, is ongoing in many states and beginning to draw greater attention from policy researchers. Still, while labor organizations are turning a critical lens to care work, popular feminist discourse dominated by educated white women too often obscures the issue.

Acting to increase representation of low-income women and women of color in mainstream feminist circles is also a responsibility shared by all of us. This can take many forms, whether it be avoiding selecting candidates for internships or jobs who are recommended by people in your network, or making a concerted effort to hire underrepresented women to write for your publication or speak at an event.  Even further, all feminist advocates can support common-sense policy reforms to alleviate pay discrimination, like the EEOC proposal to amend employer reporting and the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Collective action is a tall order for a group as large and diverse as working women, so we recommend another simple individual step: when you receive a promotion, a pay raise, or a bonus, share that added wealth with the women who work minding your children at daycare, making your coffee in the morning, and cleaning your home. Generous tips can go a long way towards alleviating the material hardship of low-income women, and a wage increase, even further. For women employed in care work jobs, employer generosity may be the only way to get a raise, even if your state or municipality enacts a higher wage floor. While organizations like the American Association of University Women may have excellent resources on how to negotiate salary for a college-educated woman, similar strategies for low-income women are substantially less feasible, if available at all.

So, when you’re leaning in at work—this Equal Pay Day and every day—don’t forget to also pay it forward.



Guilty Until Proven Innocent

After a months-long trip to visit extended family in Cincinnati, Charles Clarke was approached by local law enforcement while preparing to board a flight home to Orlando. A tip from a ticket agent, who claimed that Clarke’s bag smelled like marijuana, had spurred the encounter.

The officers, who were working with the Drug Enforcement Administration, began quizzing Clarke, a 22-year-old African-American and college student, on his travel plans. They also asked him if he was carrying cash. Believing he had nothing to hide from law enforcement, Clarke consented to a search of his carry-on bag.

Clarke was carrying approximately $11,000 in cash, money he had obtained through legal means, including his job and student loans. Before taking his trip, he had decided to bring the money with him because his mother, whom he lives with, was moving and Clarke did not want his money to be lying around for movers to find.

“I asked them if they searched my [checked] bags, and they told me yes and that they didn’t find anything,” Clarke said in a video released by the Institute for Justice, the libertarian public interest law firm that is representing him in federal court. “And to prove the fact that I didn’t have anything, I let them search my carry-on. And they didn’t find anything. I didn’t have any drugs on me, anything at all, and they still took my money.”

Carrying cash for domestic travel, of course, is not a crime. But federal civil asset forfeiture laws, as well as most state statutes, create perverse incentives for law enforcement to take people’s property. Under these laws, state and local law enforcement, working in coordination with federal agencies, can seize money under federal forfeiture law and receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds in return. And, in a distortion of justice, the burden of proof in federal forfeiture proceedings falls on the property owners, not the government. This disproportionately impacts low-income people; as there is generally no constitutional right to an attorney in forfeiture cases, property owners who cannot afford legal representation are often left with no choice but to attempt to represent themselves in court.

Clarke, who was never charged with a drug-related crime, admits to being a recreational marijuana user, but he insists that he is not a dealer. But after more than a year, the federal government is still holding his money, and 13 different law enforcement agencies, including several that were not even involved in the seizure, are lining up to get a cut of the cash through the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program. He may not see again if he cannot prove he obtained the funds through lawful means.

“I saved up the money to use for living expenses and for future savings, and now it is gone,” Clarke said. “After the money was seized, it was very hard for me to make ends meet. I had to borrow money from family, and I was embarrassed. No one should have to go through the nightmare I went through simply because they choose to carry their hard-earned cash.”

Abuse of this pernicious tool tends to impact people of color and the poor the most.

Clarke’s story is all too common. Innocent people are often negatively affected by civil asset forfeiture. Their money, homes, and vehicles can be taken from them without ever being charged with a crime, which can have devastating short- and long-term consequences for already struggling individuals and families.

When people hear stories like Clarke’s—especially those who are learning about civil asset forfeiture for the first time—they are simply stunned. They wonder how this could happen in America, where we are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.

A FreedomWorks publication offers background on this troubling area of the policing. The report covers the roots of civil asset forfeiture in British admiralty law and the early days of the United States, how it is used today (primarily in the decades-long war on drugs), and the threat it represents to Americans’ due process and property rights.

While civil asset forfeiture can affect any American, abuse of this pernicious tool tends to impact people of color and the poor the most. The Washington Post, in its lauded September 2014 investigative series “Stop and Seize,” examined 400 federal forfeiture cases that were challenged by a property owner. The majority of those who received at least some money back “were black, Hispanic or another minority.”

Likewise, an analysis of Philadelphia law enforcement’s use of civil asset forfeiture released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania found that African-Americans are disproportionately impacted. Researchers discovered that police in the “City of Brotherly Love” bring in $5 million each year through forfeiture of cash and property.

Roughly a third of those whose property is seized are never convicted of a crime—and African-Americans are even less likely to have been convicted. “An estimated 7 out of 10 people whose cash is taken by Philadelphia law enforcement even though they have not been convicted of a crime are African-American,” the report explained. “One explanation for this disparity is that innocent African-Americans are more likely to be subject to unfounded arrests and property seizures in the first place, which then spawn more forfeiture petitions.”

Under Pennsylvania civil asset forfeiture laws, prosecutors need only meet a low standard of evidence to subject property to forfeiture. The burden of proof falls on the property owner. Most walk away rather than fight what could be a costly and lengthy battle to get their property back.

There are legislative remedies to restore justice. Ideally, a criminal conviction would be required before property is seized by law enforcement and the profit motive that often drives seizures would be removed by directing proceeds from forfeitures to a neutral account, beyond the grasp of law enforcement. Importantly, the burden of proof should always—without question—fall on the government.

These steps may not solve all the problems with policing in the United States, particularly as they relate to law enforcement and people of color. But civil asset forfeiture reform could be a good first step toward improving relationships with communities that look skeptically at law enforcement.



How Pennsylvania Punishes Poor Parents for Jerry Sandusky’s Actions

This article was originally published at

A woman and her ex-husband shared custody of their 18-month-old daughter. After spending the weekend at her dad’s house, the girl was returned to her mother’s home with a case of diaper rash.

The dad notified the mom of the rash and gave her a tube of ointment that he had been applying. The mom watched the rash for several days, applying the ointment as directed by the medication’s instructions. When the rash did not go away, she took her daughter to the doctor, who found that the rash had become infected and reported the mother to the local child-welfare agency for child neglect.

The mom had done what almost every parent would have under the circumstances—she had treated the rash, watched it closely, and ultimately made the decision that it required medical attention. However, she was placed on the civil statewide Childline and Abuse Registry and lost her job as a home health aide. Until she was able to get a hearing and clear her name—a process that can take as long as a year—she was unable to get another job in the profession she had been trained in.

In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, the Pennsylvania legislature passed 23 bills containing hundreds of amendments to the Child Protective Services Law (CPSL). Exactly two of those amendments may possibly have stopped Sandusky’s abuse of children at an earlier stage. Most of the other changes involved redefining child abuse and expanding background checks in ways that are increasingly—and irrationally—resulting in significant consequences to the employment, reputations, and child custody of low-income people, especially people of color.  These consequences inevitably have great impact on children and families.

We’ve heard about the college professors and parent volunteers in schools offended by the inconvenience and intrusiveness of having to get child-abuse background checks. Little, however, has been reported about the people most affected by these background checks: low-wage employees, such as cafeteria workers, school secretarial staff, home-health aides, and day-care teachers.

Many people are being needlessly barred from employment—sometimes even losing long-term jobs—due to criminal records that are extremely old, minor, or irrelevant to their ability to safely be employed around children. Many more are barred from jobs because of placement on the registry without any court proceedings, or even proof. Under the new amendments to the CPSL, these consequences are being exacerbated.

Many people are being needlessly barred from employment due to criminal records that are extremely old, minor, or irrelevant.

Protecting children is necessary and commendable. But the registry is an arbitrary and inaccurate tool for assessing who presents a risk, either to their own children or those under their care at work. Yet the registry is regularly used as a screening tool. People with “indicated” reports are listed in the registry and barred from working in day care, education, health care, nursing homes, paratransit, and a growing number of other jobs, predominantly ones filled by low-wage workers.

Placement on the registry has always been too easy. When a county agency responsible for children’s welfare receives notice of suspected child abuse or neglect—from a teacher, a doctor, a neighbor, and (not too rarely) sometimes an angry ex-spouse—it is required to investigate the allegations within 24 hours. After speaking with the child (if that child is of speaking age) and any other relevant parties, and reviewing whatever evidence is available, the agency makes a decision whether or not to “indicate” the report—that is, place the suspected perpetrator on the registry.

There is no hearing, no opportunity to present evidence. A caseworker checks off a box, and an individual is placed on the registry effectively for life—unless this person successfully appeals within a very short deadline. The individuals concerned are not entitled to view the investigation file before or after placement.

All too often, indicated reports are based on faulty or incomplete investigations, or on actions or omissions by parents or caretakers that simply do not meet the statutory definitions of child abuse. Even with a careful investigator, the sometimes-fine distinction between lawful discipline through spanking and abuse can be lost.

In the experience of Community Legal Services, some social workers and supervisors put people on the registry too casually and do not comprehend the significant financial and emotional toll on the family that can ensue from a child-abuse report.

From an institutional perspective, checking off the box seems like a less intrusive option than removing a child from the home, and creates a record that the agency “did something.” It is a matter of routine. We also see many instances in which false accusations of abuse are raised in the course of contentious custody disputes, a circumstance that can be noted by a social worker as a concern, but disregarded in a “better safe than sorry” posture

The recently expanded definitions of child abuse make this bad situation worse. The removal of the word non-accidental from the definition increases the risk that parents and caretakers will be placed on the registry for accidents that happen in the normal course of children’s lives.

It is now child abuse if a parent or caretaker acts or fails to act in a manner that creates a “reasonable likelihood” of injury, whether or not an injury actually occurs. Neglect is defined as, among other things, any repeated or prolonged act that “threatens a child’s well-being.” These are extremely low standards; all parents make judgment calls, knowing their child and their individual and family circumstances, that arguably could carry a reasonable likelihood of harm to body or well-being.

In our experience, low-income parents and caregivers are more likely to have governmental agencies involved in their lives and questioning their judgment calls; in effect, they are held to a higher standard of parenting than middle- and upper-class parents and professionals.

The CPSL amendments have also broadened requirements for background checks to an absurd degree. Now, anyone on the registry who has “routine interaction” with children at work is barred from such employment, even if children are never under their care or supervision. One government agency has interpreted “routine interaction” as passing in the hallway.

I am certainly not suggesting that convicted sex abusers be able to work in day cares or schools. However, are we really concerned that someone who once accidentally left an iron on, who didn’t treat a burn sufficiently, even who once lost it and slapped her delinquent teenage daughter, is such a danger to others that he or she can never drive a school bus, hand out food in a cafeteria, or even diligently and safely care for children in a day care?  Certainly there are individuals who inflict great harm to children and those individuals should face appropriate consequences.  But lumping them in with parents and caregivers whose actions were accidental or the result of a minor and isolated incident results only in detracting resources and energy from the more egregious cases and in deepening poverty for families.

The commonwealth should revisit the recent CPSL amendments to effect a more rational and balanced approach that will both protect children and afford parents the ability to make sound and reasoned parenting choices without losing employment opportunities for life.



It’s Been Twenty-Five Years Since Restaurant Workers Got a Raise

“Whenever you feel like it’s probably fine to not tip your server, that’s one more bill stacking up because they’re short on money. This is food for the week that our families will go without because you didn’t think it was necessary, even after asking for everything under the sun and receiving it free of charge, mind you. This is one less basic necessity my daughter needs because even TWO more dollars is too much for you.”

These words from a young, Colorado waitress named Taylar Cordova—accompanied by an image of a zero-tip check for a meal totaling $182—set the internet ablaze this week, receiving thousands of likes, shares, and comments on Facebook and sparking impassioned think pieces about the plight of our nation’s 11 million restaurant workers.

And it couldn’t have been timelier. Thanks to the efforts of industry groups like the National Restaurant Association—or “the other NRA,” as I like to call them—which has stymied efforts to raise wages for restaurant workers, today marks the 25th year the federal tipped minimum wage has been frozen at an abysmal $2.13 per hour. And when you’re paid $2.13 per hour by your employer, or even $5.29 as it is in Colorado, you are completely reliant on tips to pay your bills.

Happy anniversary, everybody!

Twenty-five years is a long time to go without paying a significant portion of your workers—servers, bussers, hosts, bartenders—at least the minimum wage, let alone a wage that enables a family to make ends meet. And as a result, servers are twice as likely to need food stamps than the rest of the U.S. workforce, and three times as likely to live in poverty. The restaurant industry now includes 7 of the 10 lowest paying jobs in the country.

And the fact that it’s been 25 years isn’t even the half of it. In fact, it’s only about a quarter of it. Since the creation of the minimum wage almost a century ago, federal law has mandated that tipped workers be paid less than everyone else, a practice rooted in American slavery, when employers didn’t want to pay newly freed slaves a wage. Why? Because of the undue and enduring influence of our friends at the NRA.

The NRA claims to represent small independent businesses, but APRIL FOOLS! It’s actually a front group for multinational corporations like Darden (Olive Garden), DineEquity (Applebee’s/IHOP), and Bloomin’ Brands (Outback Steakhouse). Despite the corporate welfare that these companies manage to secure for themselves, as many as 50 percent of their employees are near the poverty level and must access an array of public assistance programs—at a cost of over $9 million to taxpayers.

And thus, although heart-wrenching and unacceptable, Taylar Cordova’s story is not unique. In my travels and after talking with hundreds of restaurant workers, I’ve met countless women like Taylar—mothers working long hours to put food on the tables of others, all the while uncertain whether they’ll be able to afford food for their own tables later that night.

All Work and No Pay from on Vimeo.

All of these stories contradict the prevailing myth that tipped workers are largely white men working at fine-dining establishments, earning nearly six figures for their efforts. In reality, nearly 70 percent of tipped restaurant workers are women, 30 percent of whom are mothers, working in casual dining establishments like Denny’s, the Olive Garden, or, in Taylar’s case, PF Chang’s. These workers—42 percent of whom are people of color—also experience disproportionate rates of poverty, financial insecurity, and discrimination.

And then there’s the sexual harassment. The restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment claims in the country. What’s more, workers in states that pay the lowest possible tipped wage of $2.13 per hour experience harassment at twice the rate of their counterparts. Conversely, tipped women workers in states that have eliminated the subminimum wage are less likely to experience sexual harassment. The tipped minimum wage, combined with the practice of tipping, forces women servers to tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers, coworkers and managers in order to survive.

Altogether, this isn’t just about the huge restaurant corporations lining their own pockets. With the lives of over 11 million restaurant workers hanging in the balance, their impact is seismic. Their obstructionist efforts have deep consequences and keep the restaurant industry and our nation at large from moving in a direction that promotes equality across racial, gender, and economic lines.

But after years of hard work, and tireless efforts by workers and their allies, stories like Taylar’s are resonating because a national movement for One Fair Wage is gaining incredible momentum. The seven states that have already eliminated the two-tiered minimum wage system (including California and most of the West Coast) account for over one million tipped workers, and their restaurant industries are flourishing. In fact, California is taking a step further; state legislators announced this week they are moving forward with a plan to increase the minimum wage for all workers to $15 per hour. Many other states, including New York, Maine, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, plus Washington D.C., are considering wage increases. I urge them not to leave out women and people of color; tipped workers deserve a raise, too.

From Danny Meyer to Amy Schumer, the plight of employees who earn tips is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. It’s time for our legislators to catch up with the rest of America and establish one fair wage for all workers. We hope that on this special 25th anniversary, we’ll finally give the restaurant industry a gift it deserves: a fair wage that ensures dignity and justice for the tens of thousands of hardworking employees who make the restaurant industry what it is.


First Person

A Letter to Capital One About the Tipped Minimum Wage

Dear Capital One:

Rebecca here.

A few weeks ago I signed up for one of your credit cards. Just a few weeks after the card came in the mail, I got an email alert from you about a tip I had left. Here’s what it said:

We noticed you gave an extra generous tip on March 14, 2016, for your service at Mackey’s… We hope you left this tip because your service was exceptional. So if it’s not a mistake—or if you’ve already addressed it—there’s nothing you need to do. Have concerns about the tip? Just sign in to look at the charge in more detail. You can also contact Mackey’s directly if you need to…

I looked closer at your email to see I’d left $5 on a $14 bill.

While my tip may have exceeded 20% of the bill (the percentage conventionally considered to be a “good” tip), it was just an extra two bucks—and well within the realm of what I consider reasonable.

As a former server—and as someone who spends her days working to fight poverty and boost opportunity in America—I was struck by the great irony of receiving these emails in the weeks leading up to the 25th anniversary of the last time Congress raised the tipped minimum wage.

I was still reeling from your initial email alert when my “extra generous” tipping was flagged again. This time I had I left a whopping $4 tip on an $11 bill.

And the emails kept coming every day for the rest of the week.

I get that somewhere in there you may have good intentions. Indeed, in response to my publicly sharing your tip-shaming email alerts, your customer service department tweeted that you “like to lean on the safe side when it comes to possible fraudulent activity.”

But with April 1st marking 25 years since Congress last raised the tipped minimum wage, now seems as good a time as any to explain why I tip how I do—and why your email alerts aren’t just meddlesome and offensive, but part of the problem.

In the U.S., the 4.3 million Americans who work for tips are subject to a much lower federal wage floor than other workers. Whereas the federal minimum wage—which is itself a poverty wage—sits at $7.25 per hour, the tipped minimum wage is an abysmal $2.13 per hour, just 30 percent of the full federal minimum. And while the federal minimum wage has been increased five times since 1991, policymakers have left the tipped minimum wage to stay stuck at $2.13.

This anemic wage floor leaves workers at restaurants, hair salons, nail salons, valet parkers, airport attendants, bellhops, and food delivery workers—anyone working for tips—economically vulnerable. In fact, 12.8% of workers in predominantly tipped occupations live below the federal poverty line, and nearly 15% of restaurant servers are poor, compared to just 6.7% of the overall workforce. And nearly half rely on public assistance to make ends meet.

These disparities aren’t inevitable. Indeed, the contrast between states that have a subminimum tipped wage and those that pay tipped workers the same as other workers shows the difference that policy can make. Just 10.2% of restaurant servers are poor in states that have no subminimum tipped wage compared with 18% in states with a $2.13 per hour tipped wage.

Importantly, it’s not just low pay that makes it hard to get by on the tipped minimum wage. As anyone who’s ever been a restaurant server knows all too well, working for tips is inherently unpredictable. While other workers are paid the same rate for every hour they work, tipped workers’ income can fluctuate day to day and week to week, subject to the vagaries of busy and slow shifts, good and bad weather, a booming economy versus hard times when potential customers are tighter with their pocketbooks, and more. It can be incredibly difficult to budget, plan ahead, and save for the future when you can’t predict your income.

Contrary to claims made by some in the restaurant industry—the main opponents of raising the tipped minimum wage—growth of restaurant jobs in states that pay tipped workers the same as other workers is on par with that of the rest of the country. In fact, three of the states with the top growth—Nevada, Washington, and Oregon—do not have a tipped wage below the minimum wage. Restaurants themselves can even benefit from raising wages for their workers. In addition to boosting productivity, one study of restaurant workers found that higher wages cut employee turnover by as much as half, shrinking training costs substantially.

Policymakers at all levels of government are working to address this. Legislation championed by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) would gradually raise the tipped minimum wage to 70% of the federal minimum, an important step in the right direction. Meanwhile, as the Fight for $15 movement continues to gain steam in states and cities across the U.S., there is widespread support for raising or phasing out altogether the tipped minimum wage as well, with 8 states taking action in just the past two years to boost wages for tipped workers.

Yet, Capital One: While these legislative actions are positive steps, some—hopefully many—of your customers who can afford it may choose to tip more generously than 20%, in recognition of how hard it is to get by on the tipped minimum wage. As sociologist Kathy Edin and economist Jonathan Skinner noted recently, tipping well—while hardly a panacea for poverty and inequality—is one concrete step that people can take to make a difference in the lives of low-wage workers who rely on tips.

In closing, I’ll leave you with a few ideas for how you can put your algorithms that trigger email alerts to better use.

What about sending emails with facts about the tipped minimum wage to customers who are routinely cruddy tippers?

Or alerting your customers when businesses they patronize commit wage theft?

Or letting us know when companies fail to top off workers’ pay when tips don’t get them up to the federal minimum wage, as employers are required by law to do?

But if nothing else, please stop hectoring customers like me for doing what we can to tackle poverty and inequality.


Rebecca D. Vallas