April 9 is Equal Pay Day, representing the date in 2013 through which women must work to match what men earned in 2012, thanks to the persistent gap between men’s and women’s median earnings. Women working full time, year round in the United States are paid just 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts, and the gap is even wider for women of color; black women working full time, year round are paid only 64 cents, and Hispanic women only 55 cents, for every dollar paid to their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts.
There are a number of steps the federal government can take to help close the wage gap and promote fair pay for women, like preventing and remedying pay and other discrimination (by, for example, passing the Paycheck Fairness Act) and expanding women’s access to growing, high-paying jobs that are nontraditional for their gender. And here’s another important measure to add to that list: raising the minimum wage.
Women are nearly two thirds of minimum wage earners in the United States today and represent a large majority in most of the 10 largest low-paying occupations. Women’s concentration in such low-wage jobs is one of the reasons women still typically earn less than men. A woman working full time at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour makes just $14,500 in a year — thousands of dollars below the poverty line for a mom with two kids. Pay for tipped workers — like restaurant servers, who are about 70 percent women — can be even lower: The federal tipped minimum cash wage has been frozen at just $2.13 per hour for more than 20 years.
The Fair Minimum Wage Act introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) would give about 17 million women a long overdue raise. Specifically, the bill would increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour by 2015, gradually raise the tipped minimum cash wage from $2.13 an hour to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage, and index both wages to keep pace with inflation.
This measure would raise annual minimum wage earnings to $20,200 by 2015, enough to pull a family of three out of poverty. Over time, tipped workers could see their annual earnings rise by nearly $10,000. The indexing provision in the bill would ensure that these gains are not erased as the cost of living rises. And, because most of the workers who would get a raise are women, a higher minimum wage could help close the wage gap.
In 2011, 7 of the 10 states with the narrowest wage gaps had minimum wages above the federal level; among the quarter of states with the widest wage gaps, only two had minimum wages above $7.25 per hour.
More than a $10.10 minimum wage is necessary to ensure that women have equal opportunity to support themselves and their families, but enacting the Fair Minimum Wage Act would be an important step in the right direction.