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Workers on Edge Need the Most Stimulus Aid

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

As Obama takes a stimulus plan to Congress as his first act in office, Judy Patrick and Surina Khan spotlight reforms that would help low-wage female workers provide for their families.

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As Obama takes a stimulus plan to Congress as his first act in office, Judy Patrick and Surina Khan spotlight reforms that would help low-wage female workers provide for their families.
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Judy Patrick Surina Khan

(WOMENSENEWS)--While Washington lawmakers are debating President-elect Barack Obama's economic stimulus proposal, Blanca is cleaning houses.

We, however, are listening closely, ready to respond to any package that does not include several easy steps, outlined below, to ensure that low-wage working women are also assisted by an economic stimulus plan that could swell to $850 billion. Otherwise we will continue to put forward old solutions to new problems.

Blanca is the parent of four children ranging in age from 5 to 13. She has no health insurance, and if she misses a day of work she also misses a day's pay. She juggles child care to keep her cleaning jobs. Her sister helps with the children during the day before going to her restaurant job at night. Blanca makes about $1,000 per month.

Blanca is a low-wage worker. She is one of 30 million U.S. residents who are heading families that include 20 million children.

Sixty-eight percent of low-wage workers are women. Nearly one-third of women in the work force have low-wage employment compared with one-fifth of male workers. Women bring home at least one-third of all family income, a significant contribution to the stability of the U.S. economy. Any plans for stabilizing the economy will need to consider the larger effects that job loss and women's declining wages have on communities.

Recent statistics indicate that in the current economic recession, women are losing jobs at a faster pace than men. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobless rate among women is 5.9 percent; however, the overall unemployment rate is 7.2 percent. Many of the jobs, such at the one held by Blanca, are not included in the unemployment data.

Even with a new government stimulus and the Federal Reserve's decision to push a key interest rate to an all-time low, the jobless rate is expected to keep rising. Some economists think it could hit 9 or 10 percent this year.

Women play a crucial role in lifting families out of poverty. Evidence indicates that when women are the direct users of credit and have greater control over family funds, household welfare increases and more resources are allocated to food and children's health care and education. This is smart economics.

Waitresses, Cashiers, Housecleaners

Much attention has been paid to higher-wage workers--particularly those in the finance and automobile sectors--losing their jobs. But for all the higher-wage, higher-profile jobs being lost, just as many lower-wage jobs, often held by women, are disappearing. If workers hold part-time positions like Blanca--or are self-employed--they are not eligible for unemployment insurance even though they pay into the system.

These are retail salespeople, security guards, education assistants, child-care workers, waitresses, cashiers, fast-food cooks, bartenders, home health aides and housecleaners. Over 20 percent of white workers, 30 percent of African American workers and 40 percent of Latino workers are members of the low-wage work force.

These workers are underpaid and work for wages that don't begin to support a basic standard of living. One-quarter earn less than $8.70 an hour, or $16,704 per year, in jobs that deduct pay for Social Security and taxes but provide few basic benefits such as health care, sick pay, disability pay or paid vacation.

Many female heads-of-household have no safety net. Nearly 37 percent of families headed by single women in California live in poverty, 53 percent of working mothers have no sick leave and 1 in 10 working women have no health insurance. Women also make up 68 percent of minimum-wage workers, making them especially vulnerable to economic turbulence.

Wage Gap Persists

Women are not only disproportionately represented in the low-wage work force; they also earn less than men who hold exactly the same job. Today, despite decades of struggle for job access and pay equity, women are paid about 77 cents for each dollar a man makes. The disparity is worse for African American women, who earn 62 cents, and Latinas, who earn 53 cents, to every dollar earned by a man. More than 10 million women are single parents (as compared with 2.5 million single fathers). For them, opting out of the work force for any reason--like raising children or pursuing an education--is not viable.

Already disadvantaged by years of workplace and legislative failures, women and our families face an increasingly insecure future if policies are not adjusted to meet needs that are ever more pressing. Any economic recovery package should address the urgent needs of those who have been most impacted by the crisis, especially low-income women, women of color and their families.

We need to create a safety net that includes benefits that are easy to access especially during times of economic downturn and that are inclusive of immigrants. Without this, women and our families will sink deeper into poverty and be far less likely to recover from overwhelming threats to economic security, no matter how much money our legislators move into the corporate sector.

Some Solutions

We already know some of the solutions:

     

  • Implement the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. It passed the House of Representatives last week and awaits Senate passage. This will remove obstacles to pay-discrimination lawsuits.
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  • Extend the time period for unemployment benefits and make these benefits available to part-time workers like Blanca (most of them women) who pay into the system through taxes but don't reap many of the benefits.
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  • Provide education and training for women to move into Obama's infrastructure-building program and green innovation jobs. At the same time, remember that infrastructure jobs are largely held by men, so be sure to invest in education and health care as well.
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  • Prioritize hiring of under-represented and vulnerable groups such as women and people of color and ensure fair hiring practices in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation.
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  • Allow bankruptcy judges to alter repayment terms for mortgages.
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  • Strengthen the social safety net for families by suspending the time limit on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families aid, augmenting funding for child care and nutrition support programs, and increasing the federal contribution to states for welfare and Medicaid programs.
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These are but a few policies that Congress can enact immediately to help all workers, especially those supporting families on low incomes.

Congress and the new administration must also focus on longer-term solutions. These include providing universal access to health insurance and mandating paid sick days for workers. It also means paving the pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, which will help prevent the depression of all workers' wages since many undocumented immigrants have few options but to work for extremely low pay.

To rebuild our economic system we need policies that are rooted in fairness and that will address people's real problems with real solutions.

During his campaign Obama often talked about the need for people to organize. He seemed to know that if any progressive proposals were to succeed in Congress they would need a popular movement to push them along. We agree. We know that we will have to organize in our communities to make sure our lawmakers hear us.

Judy Patrick is president and CEO of the Women's Foundation of California. Surina Khan is vice president of programs for the Women's Foundation of California.