Women in the Workplace Part II: The Mommy Penalty

By Isabel Jenkins

In the United States today, over forty percent of mothers are the primary breadwinners in their families, reports the White House. But with outdated policies and sexist corporations dominating the workplace, moms have a long way to go before they see true professional equality. The US is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave, and our country’s problem with working moms runs deep. As I recently covered in a blogpost for Re:Gender, the mommy penalty hits low income workers particularly hard.

A Demos study shows that only 17 percent of New York’s full-time retail workers and 10 percent of part-time workers had a fixed work schedule in 2012. Unpredictable work schedules negatively impact weekly income, making it difficult for mothers to work full-time and support a family. For women with children (36 percent of women in retail are moms, says Demos), inflexible or unpredictable shifts means choosing between getting the kids to school and getting to work on time. Some workers may be disqualified from receiving public benefits if they don’t work the required number of hours, making a steady full-time schedule vital to upholding other daily needs. Demos reports that less than half of retail workers receive any paid sick days, doubtlessly contributing to the White House statistic that a third of workers have passed up a job because it conflicted with family. Finally, women going to school in the hopes of attaining an education and thus a higher position at work are limited by constantly changing shifts. Escaping poverty is difficult if workers have no access to earning the necessary degrees for more secure and lucrative employment.

In 2014, the American Sociological Review published a study suggesting that men were more likely to work overtime than women. In fact, researchers believe that as much as ten percent of the gender wage gap is due to this disparity in hours. Some might see this as fodder for the argument that the gender wage gap is due to plain ole difference in work ethic. But in reality, many women’s jobs don’t end when they clock out. A study published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that American women put in four additional hours of work at home a day, while men put in between two and a half and three hours. As is expected, unpaid homework often involves childcare. Many women are required, or expected, to be at home to do unpaid domestic work. This severely cuts down the amount of time mothers are available for paid work. Single, low-wage mothers are thus faced with the choice of making more money or being home while their children are awake.

The tipped minimum wage presents an additional set of obstacles for mothers of all colors and classes. Women make up 74 percent of workers in tipped professions, including waitressing, bartending and hairdressing, reports the White House. Half of tipped workers are at least 30 years old and one in seven receive food stamps, dispelling the myth that only high schoolers and college students work tipped jobs. Federal law allows employers to pay the hourly minimum of $2.13 to all employees who regularly receive tips for their services, as long as, when combined, their tips and tipped minimum wage add up to $7.25 an hour. If they don’t, the employer is required to make up the difference, which doesn’t always happen, according to the White House report linked above. Unfortunately, one in ten workers in tipped-wage jobs report receiving less than the federal minimum wage, even with their tips included.

According to Restaurant Opportunities Council United (ROCUnited), year-round tipped employees earning $8.75 an hour (the median wage for these workers) only make about $18,200 a year. This is well under the poverty threshold for a family of four, considering the living wage for a family of four in the US varies from about $17 to $22 an hour state-to-state. A ROCUnited report revealed another unsurprising fact: mothers (specifically in the restaurant industry) spend 35% of their weekly wages on their children.

Mothers of color are at a heightened risk of poverty. In states where the local government hasn’t raised the tipped minimum wage, like Texas and New Jersey, workers of color are two times more likely to live in poverty than the rest of the population. That means one in four people of color in tipped occupations face poverty every day, compared to 16 percent of white employees and 20 percent of workers overall.

In some cases, women are discriminated against before they are even officially mothers. The Demos study discussed earlier in this post takes a close look at retail superstore Walmart, already known for discriminating against its female workers. Researchers found that the corporation refused to provide appropriate accommodations for pregnant employees. Expecting mothers reported being forced to climb ladders or carry heavy boxes, threatened with unpaid sick leave if they refused. For women preparing to support an additional life, time off work isn’t financially feasible. So when does an unfair work practice become a life-threatening one?

But there’s good news: In March of this year, Walmart acknowledged a lawsuit filed by its workers concerning the violation of pregnant employees’ rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. It issued a new policy that provided reasonable accommodations for expecting mothers. On July 16th, Employment Opportunity Commission announced that it would be updating its rules regarding treatment of pregnant workers for the first time in 30 years. The new guidelines establish that the Americans with Disabilities Act does apply to pregnant employees, meaning that discrimination against workers that have been or could become pregnant is illegal. This not only represents an important step forward for women in the workplace, but it also means that fewer babies will be born to recently-fired or underpaid mothers, which can only improve the quality of life for the next generation.

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One Response to Women in the Workplace Part II: The Mommy Penalty

  1. Excellent! I have been in the workforce for over 35 years and things haven’t changed much. From inappropriate and biased job interviews to gender wage issues. I don’t really know what it will take for things to change except consistent eye-opening articles such as yours to keep people updated. Well done grasshopper!

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