Everything feels different this Equal Pay Day.
In the weeks leading up to Tuesday, March 31, the day that marks how much more women have to work this year to catch up to what men made last year, I was preparing to hop from state to state to share my equal pay story with crowds of students and rallies of advocates. Just as sure as the forsythia shrubs and redbud trees bloom in Alabama every spring, I've made my annual journey across the country this time of year ever since the Supreme Court denied me justice in my pay discrimination case 13 years ago.
But as the coronavirus spread this year, event after event was canceled. It was too much of a health risk for folks to gather. And too much of a risk for me to travel; I am 81, after all.
So here I sit in my house in Alabama on Equal Pay Day, alone with my cat, Bushy. The streets and neighborhoods are empty. And like so many others, I'm feeling anxious.
The Covid-19 pandemic has suddenly exposed the brutal economic reality of low-paid women workers who are on the frontlines of this crisis -- and I feel an increased sense of urgency to close the wage gap that continues to shortchange them when they can least afford it.
As millions of us shelter in place and telework, home health aides are out caring for our sick family members, grocery store cashiers and clerks are giving us access to the food and supplies we need to stay healthy, and childcare workers are keeping our children safe. These workers are predominately women. And they are at high risk of viral exposure in each of these essential jobs. But so many lack the basic protections of a decent wage, paid sick and family leave, and employer-sponsored health care.
These women face a cruel double-whammy: they're getting hit by the economic tsunami of the pandemic along with the lost earnings of the gender wage gap that pays them less than men doing the same job. New analysis by the National Women's Law Center shows that 85% of home health and personal care aides are women, and they are losing $5,000 each year to the wage gap, based on the difference between men and women's median annual earnings.
Some 93% of child care workers are women, and, according to the NWLC's analysis, they are paid a median of just $22,000 per year, while men in those same positions are paid a median of $27,000 per year.
This means women childcare workers are losing $5,000 each year to the gender wage gap.
Similarly, 70% of restaurant waitstaff are women: the wage gap deprives them of $6,000, according to calculations of men and women's median annual earnings. Women of color are a large percentage of the workers filling these jobs and face the largest wage gap losses of all because they experience both a gender and racial wage gap.
Imagine if the balance of those lost wages -- money they deserve in a just society -- were available to them now. It could help a childcare worker, waitress, health care aide -- and so many other low-paid workers -- put food on the table, pay for medication and other health care expenses, or cover rent and avoid eviction.
Even in the best of times, most women in the low-paid workforce have always lived on a razor's edge. A child gets sick. A car breaks down. Childcare falls through. Hours are cut. It doesn't take a pandemic to kick so many women and families into economic ruin. But maybe it takes a pandemic for the rest of the country to take notice.
I keep thinking of the 4th grade boy in a school in Alabama many years ago who, after I finished my presentation, quietly raised his hand and said that if his mother couldn't work, they would not have enough to eat at home.
I think of the waitresses working the early morning shift in hotels and the women passing by me in airports who stopped to share their own equal-pay struggles. Their stories are similar. They work hard to support their kids, but they can never really make ends meet. They rely on neighbors to take care of their children when their schedules change at the last minute. They can't afford to miss a day of work. What will happen if they or their kids get sick with the coronavirus?
If there will be a silver lining to this pandemic, when it ends, we will hopefully remember what we saw and who got hurt. Let's never forget the workers who demonstrated grit and commitment during the crisis --as they've always done.
Let this public health crisis be a catalyst for supporting economic protections, like raising the minimum wage, offering paid sick days, and expanding health insurance.
And let it be a catalyst for finally closing the wage gap.