The day after Mother’s Day: An overdue economic gift for moms

mom-and-workMost kids today grow up with their mom in the workforce. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, two-thirds of new mothers now return to paid work within a year after giving birth, usually in the first few months.

Back in the 1960s, fewer than one in five new mothers held a paying job. In those days, while the middle class was expanding rapidly, the majority of families had one breadwinner and one fulltime homemaker. Unfortunately, we still organize our economy as if “women’s work” had little economic value and every family had a fulltime caregiver.

Women have gained tremendous new opportunities in the 50 years since Congress banned employment discrimination on the basis of race and sex. Jobs and activities once reserved exclusively for men are open. So are educational pathways. Women now make up a majority of college graduates and roughly half the workforce. Instead of earning only 60 cents to a man’s dollar, women working fulltime now earn 77 cents.

But most of that progress was made last century. Since 2000, women’s career and earnings gains have largely stalled.

Men and women still tend to pursue different careers. Here in King County, men hold eight in ten computer and math-related jobs and three-fourths of police and fire department jobs. Women make up two-thirds of health technicians and office administrators and 90% of childcare workers. The typical woman in King County makes $15,000 less each year than the typical man.

Still, up to 40% of the wage gap cannot be explained by differences in jobs, hours worked, education or experience. Too often women get paid less than men in the same job simply because employers can get away with it.

On top of that, the United States, unlike every other advanced economy, leaves working families on their own to cope with care giving. Without uniform standards in place, four in ten workers get no paid sick leave and only half of working women get paid maternity leave – usually cobbled together from saved up sick leave and vacation.

Those with the highest pay are most likely to get paid leave benefits. They are also best able to afford the high cost of quality childcare, which can exceed college tuition – even though childcare teachers earn near-poverty wages.

Because women get paid less and have limited access to paid leave, families suffer bouts of economic insecurity. Staying home with the flu, or caring for a sick child or ailing parent too often means loss of needed income. Women go back to work before they’ve fully recovered from childbirth or established breastfeeding. They accumulate less for retirement and can’t save for their children’s education.

If women received fair pay and had access to paid sick days and to paid family and medical leave, kids would be healthier and better prepared for success in school and life. Fewer seniors would live in poverty. Local businesses would have more customers. Our communities and our democracy would be stronger.

Here’s my Mother’s Day wish list for Washington’s women:

  • Fair pay. Discussing compensation with coworkers should not be a fire-able offense. Employers should have to justify pay differences on some basis other than sex or race.
  • Paid Sick Days. We know that Seattle’s sick leave law has extended paid leave to tens of thousands, while the city’s economy has grown faster than the rest of the state. According to the latest UW study, 70% of Seattle business owners support the law. It’s time to take it statewide.
  • Family and Medical Leave Insurance. Five states already have programs. Women in these states take longer maternity leaves, suffer fewer health complications, are more likely to breastfeed and take their babies to medical checkups. They are less likely to go on public assistance and more likely to be working and earning higher wages a year after giving birth. Let’s pass Washington’s FAMLI Act in 2015.
  • We won’t get these done by Mother’s Day – but if everyone passes this list on to their state legislators and candidates, we can give them to our moms and ourselves for next Valentine’s Day.

Originally published in the South Seattle Emerald.

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