Precarious Lives: Gender Lens on Low-Wage Work
Written by: Rosa Cho; Edited by: Gail Cooper
Contributors: Mimi Abramovitz, Julia R. Henley and Stephen Pimpare
Job (and therefore life) insecurity has risen dramatically in the American consciousness as more and more residents spend more and more time trying to make ends meet. Women have been especially hard hit and are prominent in popular magazines and web features preoccupied with stories about work, wages and the struggle to make a living. Huffington Post’s All Work, No Pay Series features first-hand accounts by U.S. residents (mostly women) trying to stay afloat working at minimum-wage jobs, while the New York Times introduced a calculator that allows readers to gauge their ability to live on the minimum wage. Policy and advocacy groups have released too many reports to count, including the National Women’s Law Center’s report “Fair Pay for Women Requires Increasing the Minimum Wage and Tipped Minimum Wage”; “A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink,” the Shriver Report’s exploration of women’s challenges in the post-recession workforce; and the Roosevelt Institute brief, “Women Laid Off, Workers Sped Up: Support Staff Hold a Clue to the Gendered Recovery,” which looks at women’s gains and losses through the prism of occupational segregation.
Beyond these articles and reports are the questions real workers confront in their experience of economic insecurity, questions with which those living in and at the edges of poverty have long struggled. Is any job a good job simply because it is paid work? Should a worker be grateful just to have a job even if more than full-time work at minimum wage does not mean that worker can cover basic living expenses? Is it a real choice if a worker is deciding between working in unsafe conditions at a non-living-wage job or becoming homeless (along with her children)? These considerations are especially relevant to the 67 million working women in the U.S. that represent approximately 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce—a dramatic shift from 1950 when women represented 30 percent of the workforce, as noted by the Center for American Progress. And while their unemployment rate for the first quarter of 2014 (6 percent) is lower than men’s (7 percent), the Bureau of Labor has also documented the fact that women are overrepresented in low-wage occupations as 64 percent of low-wage workers.
This primer uses the framework of precarity, a concept invoked rarely in a U.S. context, to investigate the web of constraints at work—on earnings, flexibility, predictability, benefits, availability—that leave workers’ lives, especially women’s, perpetually unstable. The primer delves into aspects of economic policy and workplace and labor market conditions as they intersect with gender, race and class. Likewise it places current workplace practices within a larger historical context, alongside comparisons of labor norms among peer nations. Finally, the primer will lay out five lynch pin areas important to establishing workers’ economic stability (or instrumental in maintaining its insecurity), namely: immigration, occupational segregation, sexual violence, workplace practices/conditions and affordable housing.
Notable facts and statistics
- Labor statistics show that women have increased their presence in the U.S. workforce from 33 percent in 1949 to 57 percent in 2014.
- Though women represented just over half of the public workforce at the end of the recession, they lost the majority (64 percent) of the 578,000 jobs cut in this sector between June 2009 and October 2011.
- Women’s unpaid and underpaid labor is estimated by the United Nations to be worth up to $11 trillion globally and $1.4 trillion in the U.S. alone.
- According to the National Women’s Law Center, in 2012, approximately 587,000 single mothers (13 percent) who worked full time lived in poverty.
- The tipped minimum wage, steady since 1991, is $2.13 per hour. A recent White House report shows that women comprise close to 75 percent of workers in tipped occupations, including servers, bartenders, and personal appearance workers (barbers, hairdressers, aestheticians, massage therapists, etc.).
- Employers prize so-called “maximum availability,” which for workers translates to taking on odd or off-hours shifts or being available to work 70 percent of a retail store’s hours, sometimes referred to as round-the-clock scheduling.
- Turnover is high among low-wage workers, especially those in part-time and unstable jobs. They face steep challenges including just-in-time schedules that can shift radically week to week, based on employer/customer need and mandatory overtime can crop up with little notice. Workers contend with inadequate child care and unreliable public transportation, along with a highly unpredictable schedule.
- Findings from a 2012 report based on surveys given to over 2,000 New York City nannies, caregivers and housecleaners, all occupations heavily represented by women, shows: the median hourly pay for live-in workers was $6.15; 23 percent of surveyed workers were paid below New York State minimum wage; and less than 2 percent and 9 percent work for employers who offer pension/retirement benefits or pay into Social Security, respectively.
- According to OECD’s “How’s Life? 2013: Measuring Well-Being” report, the U.S. ranked 29 out of 36 countries on Work-Life Balance, measured by indicators such as hours spent on work or leisure/personal care.