Mind the gap: Latinas and unequal pay

On June 10, 1963, the U.S. government passed an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act making it illegal to pay women less than men for the same work.

That was 50 years ago, and women are still paid less than men at all education levels, in almost every field. On average, women make 77 cents to every dollar a man makes per hour, translating to about $11,084 per year less than a man.

These are statistics that many of us know like the back of our hand. Since the implementation of this amendment, we have progressed 18 cents towards closing the wage gap, however that progress ended a decade ago. In the past ten years, women have earned a static 23 cents less than men per hour. These numbers continue to shock us as a very real and tangible example of why we need feminism.

However, what a lot of people are not familiar with is the way in which wages are segregated along race lines as much as gender. According to this report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Latinas are paid the least of any demographic, earning an average of $521 a week. That’s 54 cents for every dollar the average white man makes, and in California the numbers get worse, with Latinas earning 43.2 cents for every white man’s dollar. That’s thousands of dollars a year.

In addition to earning less than their male counterparts, Latinas are mostly found in our country’s lowest paying jobs, often in the informal sector where they are more likely to be exploited. If they are undocumented, these women can easily lose their jobs as a result of the Obama administration’s silent ICE raids.

Now, imagine trying to feed your kids with two minimum wage jobs, yet knowing that every day that by going to work, you risk being torn away from your family?

This is why Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) threw a luncheon last week, honoring those women struggling with unfair pay, celebrating the progress we have made in the past 50 years, and laying out the work still to be done. At the luncheon some incredible presenters spoke to their experience struggling for equal pay. Among them was Saru Jaramayan of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an organization that fights for fair pay and better working conditions for restaurant workers in the United States. 

According to Jaramayan, the restaurant industry demonstrates some of our country’s worst disparities in wages, with a $4 wage gap between white workers and workers of color. Not only that, but the restaurant industry is the only industry in which it is almost legal to pay women less than men: women make up 70% of workers receiving the federally-mandated minimum wage of $2.13 per hour for tipped workers.

Restaurant servers suffer from three times the poverty rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce, and Latin@s and other workers of color earn some of the lowest wages in the industry.

According to Jaramayan, “Latino workers and all workers of color are segregated into the industry’s lowest-paying jobs, both by segment–meaning that they are working fast food restaurants as opposed to fine dining–and also by positions. People of color are relegated to lower-paid positions even when they make it to fine dining. They tend to be bussers instead of servers, dishwashers instead of cooks.”

In her book, “Behind the Kitchen Door,” Saramayan gives the example of Claudia Muñoz, a Mexican immigrant working as server at an IHOP in Houston, Texas. In order to put herself through grad school, Claudia was receiving $2.13 per hour, with barely any tips to raise her wage to the federally mandated $7.25 per hour. Employers are required by law to make up the difference if workers do not receive it in tips, but her employer did not. Often times, Claudia received paychecks with a zero written on it, all her meager wages going to taxes.

Also at the luncheon was Lilly Ledbetter of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first act signed into law by Obama when he came into office in 2009. (Check out the Feministing Five interview with her.) Ledbetter found out that she had been paid less than her male peers for years, yet went through many legal battles to be able file a lawsuit against her employer so long after the fact.

She is currently pushing for a new piece of legislation, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would close existing loopholes that still allow employers to get away with wage inequalities.

Among other things, the billwould allow employees to discuss their pay with others workers without retaliation. This would let them know if they are being paid less than their peers for equal work, and give them the information to move forward and hold their employer accountable. According to Ledbetter, “Had the Paycheck Fairness Act been the law in my career days, I wouldn’t be here today. I would have had equal pay, because I would have found out. I was an aggressive employee and I would have found out and talked to my employer.”

At the luncheon, Ledbetter emphasized the point that wage equity is not only important for women, but for families. “To get people paid fairly is an economic stimulus too, because people turn their pay around on their families.” Considering that 40% of American families with kids now have women as their primary breadwinners, these women are the least able to afford the thousands of dollars that the wage gap costs women each year.

Fair pay is a cause that anyone should be able to get behind, yet Congress has rejected the Paycheck Fairness Act twice already. We can’t let this happen again. To take action, join ERA’s Close the Gap Campaign, sign ROC-United’s petition to raise the minimum wage for the first time in 21 years, or join The Welcome Table and learn how to support restaurants that are good for workers and the environments.

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Bay Area, California

Juliana is a digital storyteller for social change. As a writer at Feministing since 2013, her work has focused on women's movements throughout the Americas for environmental justice, immigrant rights, and reproductive justice. In addition to her writing, Juliana is a Senior Campaigner at Change.org, where she works to close the gap between the powerful and everyone else by supporting people from across the country to launch, escalate and win their campaigns for justice.

Juliana is a Latina feminist writer and campaigner based in the Bay Area.

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