Women are the majority of minimum wage workers in every state except 5

For so many reasons other than being graced with a relaxing Monday, Labor Day is a day of celebration: the U.S. Department of Labor notes that, true to its title, Labor Day celebrates the “creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.” The labor movement has grown, changed, and won incredibly important victories over the past decades, and in 2016, its biggest fight is the push for a higher, livable minimum wage. And I could not possibly emphasize this enough: raising the minimum wage is totally and completely a gender issue. In case you needed further evidence, take this study by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), which reveals women form the vast majority of minimum wage workers across the nation, representing “nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers across the country, and more than three-quarters of minimum wage workers in some states.”

Only in the states of Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Vermont are women not the majority of minimum wage earners. But even in these states, that roughly half of those who would be affected by a minimum wage increase would be women should inevitably render the minimum wage a women’s rights issue.

There exist no shortage of angles one could use to look at the gender wage gap, an issue that deservedly holds the attention of most people pushing for equality. Many identify how women are actively or subliminally steered away from high-paying fields, feminized professions are accorded less respect and pay, ideals about maternity and family leave have stigmatized female workers, and employers’ perceptions of who is more worthy of promotions and higher salaries are shaped by gender.

However, more people should be looking at the gender wage gap’s relationship with the minimum wage — it would be a more intersectional angle, for starters. For example, an affluent white woman scoring a promotion at her law firm is hardly a feminist victory to a minimum wage-earning woman of color struggling to get by.

The wage gap, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports is anywhere from 77 to 79 cents on the dollar, does not indicate that in any given job, women will make 77 percent what their male counterpart makes — what it really shows is that the median wage of all American women in the workforce is 77-79 percent of the median wage of all American men in the workforce. Along with blatant discrimination, gender gaps in high-paying fields, and, related to the fight for a higher minimum wage, disproportionately greater numbers of women working in low-wage jobs lower the overall statistic.

Women would disproportionately benefit from a higher minimum wage, which would increase their median earnings and help to mitigate the wage gap, at least in part. Presently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25, and while 29 states and the District of Columbia boast minimum wages above this federal level, with some cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco boasting substantially higher $15 minimum wages, for many minimum wage earners, this rate is even lower — and it’s completely legal.

From the NWLC’s study:

“Women are also two-thirds of tipped workers, such as restaurant servers. In most states, employers can count a portion of tips toward wages (known as a ‘tip credit’) and pay their tipped employees a minimum cash wage that is lower than the regular minimum wage—often far lower. The federal minimum cash wage for tipped workers has been frozen for 25 years at $2.13 per hour … providing little reliable income when fluctuating tips make it difficult to cover regular expenses like rent and groceries.”

The study notes that even in states where the minimum wage for tipped workers is higher, most are established beneath $5.

It’s worth noting that raising the minimum wage would, contrary to popular belief, benefit the economy at large, all without sparking the robot/automation apocalypse across fast food restaurants. What most opponents of the minimum wage conveniently forget is that when the minimum wage was first enacted during an era in which near-slave wages were the norm, more Americans had more money to spend and were less economically limited to necessities. They had more to spend on consumption of commercial goods, supporting businesses and enabling the sustainability of higher wages, and as a result, the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew. It’s likely these results would be replicated if the minimum wage were raised once again, especially considering inflation and the economic role of different societal developments in the past years.

Tired woman in the office
CREDIT: Poike/iStock

As Emily Martin, NWLC vice president for workplace justice, told The Frisky in a statement, raising the minimum wage remains a quintessential women’s issue. “When the minimum wage is too low to sustain a family, women and children pay the price. The disturbing data reveal that the typical minimum wage worker is a woman, and even if she is working full time, she won’t earn enough to keep her children out of poverty,” she wrote. Looking forward, she added: “There’s something wrong with this picture. It’s high time to raise the minimum wage and give all working people and their families a shot at the American Dream.”

The minimum wage affects all Americans, but its disproportionate effects on minimum wage-earning single mothers and all women can’t be forgotten this Labor Day, as we remember and celebrate all of the labor movement’s victories thus far, and all of the challenges it still must overcome.