Raising minimum wage is the minimum promise for women of color
It’s not over. Raising the minimum wage was one of the most popular promises of the new Biden-Harris administration, uniting the majority of the House and all but a few holdout Democrats in the Senate. Raising the wage would directly and dramatically improve the lives of women of color who have suffered from the pandemic and economic shutdown and have been suffering from poverty wages for much longer. The promise of a raise shaped organizing strategy and inspired record numbers to the polls, and after November and Georgia we delivered the White House, flipped the Senate, and carried down-ballot races across the finish line.
But we did not bring Democrats all this way only to be left behind. In the last two weeks, despite a bold and long overdue inclusion of the living wage in the COVID relief package, the Senate was weakened by a few politicians threatening to withdraw support and a parliamentarian ruling that removed the wage increase. Women of color and the rest of America were left to fight another day. But we must deliver a $15/hour minimum raise this year. If Democrats hope to unite America and make the case for high turnout in 2022 and hold on to the majority, they must deliver for their base: women of color.
The story isn’t over by a long shot, not when “recovery” could mean a return to a paltry $2.13 an hour for tipped workers in many states. Not when even now there’s talk of a second package coming out from the White House that features raising the minimum wage. And certainly not when we consider the potential impact of raising the wage.
The Raise the Wage Act would raise wages for nearly 32 million workers — the majority of whom are women (59 percent, or nearly 19 million) — according to analyses by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and the National Employment Law Project (NELP). Findings in the reports paint a clear and compelling picture: nearly one-third (31 percent) of African Americans and one-quarter of Latinos would get a raise if the federal minimum wage were increased to $15; and nearly 23 percent of all workers who would see a raise are Black or Latina women. According to the EPI report, African Americans and Latinos are paid 10-15 percent less than white workers with the same characteristics, concluding that the Raise the Wage Act would deliver the largest benefits to Black and Latino workers at roughly $3,500 annually for a year-round worker.
What most impacts women of color is raising the tipped minimum wage. Today, in 43 states across the country, tipped workers are still subject to a subminimum wage by law held at only $2.13 at the federal level, and $5 or less in 7 out of 10 states. Workers who have returned to work face dangerous conditions, including potential exposure to COVID-19 and increased hostility and sexual harassment from customers, all for a subminimum wage with tips down 50-75 percent, according to One Fair Wage.
Seven states have adopted equal treatment for tipped workers, ensuring all workers one fair wage, independent of tips: Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. In these states, the race-gender pay gap between Black women and white men tipped workers is 35 percent less than the race-gender pay gap in the 43 states with a subminimum wage for tipped workers. Wages are higher, poverty rates are lower, and sexual harassment among all tipped workers, including Black tipped workers, is far less in these seven states as well.
We have an opportunity in these first 100 days to uplift the very people who delivered the election — those of us who organized, marched and stood up to voter suppression as if our lives depended on it, because it does. And now the Biden-Harris administration must act with the same sense of urgency. There is still an opportunity to pass a minimum wage increase, but they must have the political courage to do so. The various pathways of success have narrowed, but two still exist: 1) Senate leadership must whip at least 50 votes in the next proposed initiative; 2) the Senate can sidestep the filibuster, enabling Democrats to enact the reform outside of budget reconciliation.
To be clear: The minimum wage is a women of color issue and it’s far from over because of one procedural ruling. If it wants to deliver on its promise to the American people, and women of color, the Biden administration needs to use whatever means necessary to pass the minimum wage. Failure to do so will cast huge doubts over the administration’s ability to take on other key issues, such as climate change, education, health care, and voters’ rights.
Women of color showed up for them. It’s time they do the same for us.
Aimee Allison is founder and president of She the People, a national network of women of color in politics.
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