Family Values @ Work

Still fighting for justice on International Women’s Day

March 13, 2012

March 7, 2012

More than a century ago, thousands of women walked out of garment shops – then one of the largest occupations for women – to march for better pay and working conditions. Their bravery inspired the annual celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8.

Today, garments are more likely to be sewn in Mexico than Manhattan. U.S. women are now clustered in restaurants and care work, two sectors where jobs can’t be shipped overseas and where employment for women continues to grow. And today, it’s women in these jobs who are inspiring people with their fight for better pay and working conditions.

Both fields suffer from labor policies that badly need updating. Many of those who serve our food and provide care for people with chronic health problems legally earn less than minimum wage and have to drag themselves to work sick or risk losing their job.

Revenues in the restaurant industry amount to $635 billion a year, yet the federal minimum wage for servers remains stuck at $2.13 an hour, and 90 percent of employees have no paid sick time. More than seven in 10 are female.

The people who make sure we have food when we eat out often have trouble putting food on the table for their own families. Servers experience almost three times the poverty rate of the work force as a whole.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center United has documented these problems and organized women and men in the industry to win changes. The group is fighting to increase the minimum wage for tipped workers and index it to at least 70 percent of the regular minimum. It is also active in the broad coalition of groups calling for a national paid sick days standard.

Home care workers also experience legal exploitation, since they were excluded from coverage under overtime law. Organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance have been working for years to update the law. They were aided by an extraordinary woman named Evelyn Coke, who for more than 30 years helped the aging or those with severe disabilities live with dignity in their homes, yet herself never had the dignity of minimum wage or overtime protection.

Coke eventually sued. Her case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices voted 9-0 against her. The issue was not justice or fairness, but rather whether the Department of Labor had the authority to exclude home care workers from the Fair Labor Standards Act. It did have that authority. But thanks to the work of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and others, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis recently announced regulations to end that exclusion.

Corporate lobbyists for the restaurant and home care industries are mobilizing opposition to these reforms, arguing they would ruin the industry and cost workers their jobs. However, 21 states and Washington, D.C., already provide some minimum wage and overtime coverage of home care workers. And 10 states have already raised the minimum wage for tipped workers. These states are doing just fine.

On International Women’s Day, let’s honor these restaurant workers and home care workers by supporting their sensible campaigns.