Thanksgiving is all about celebrating bounty — the bounty of family and friends, and of the fruit of hard work. For millions of women and their families, however, that celebration is muted by hardship and the effort it takes to survive without the wages and benefits that middle-income Americans take for granted. For those families, especially families headed by women, the Thanksgiving table needs more than a turkey, donated or purchased. It needs a solid underpinning of paid sick leave, a higher minimum wage, and equal pay — social policies that offer the support needed to sustain a decent standard of living.
Why pick these three? Because they are key to tackling the inequality that plagues modern America and leaves so many women and families struggling — especially women of color and their children. And because they are widely available in all other modern industrialized societies that have made a commitment to ensuring a floor that supports all workers. Really, we cannot argue that as a society we can’t afford them.
The struggle for equal pay goes back many decades. After untold years of job discrimination and sex-segregated want ads, Congress finally passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963. Women’s wages rose from 59-64 cents on the dollar to around 78 cents now, on average. But at this pace, it will be decades before equality is reached.
Indeed, the total dollars lost to gender inequality in wages are staggering to working class families. The average full-time white working woman loses $440,000 over the course of her work life, compared to the earnings of white men doing comparable work. That’s certainly bad enough, but the pay disparities are especially burdensome to women of color. The average full-time African American and Hispanic woman suffers a loss nearly double that size when compared to white men — about $717,000 and $854,000, respectively. And more than 4 million African American families with children are headed by women, as are 3 million Latino families with children. That is why passing the Paycheck Fairness Act to update and strengthen existing law is so critical.
Of course, pay parity won’t be enough if it rests on a minimum wage that is outdated and inadequate. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 has not been increased since 2009. Even then it was too low, reflecting the recession-based fears that a higher minimum wage would mean more unemployment. Worse, the tipped minimum wage remains a paltry $2.13 an hour — the same as 1992 — leaving restaurant workers and others who depend on tips in a very deep hole. Two-thirds of tipped workers are women, and they are nearly twice as likely to be poor than the workforce as a whole.
An increase to $12 an hour as proposed in the Raise the Wage Act (which would also abolish the tipped minimum wage) would raise annual earnings for a full-time minimum wage worker by $9,500. In fact, just a $1 increase in the minimum wage allows households dependent on a low wage worker to spend an additional $2,800 the following year. The fight for an even higher minimum — $15 — is gaining ground in many cities and states.
Finally, workers — especially women — need workplace policies that don’t force women to choose between their jobs and their health or the health of their families. As it is now, nearly one in four workers say they either lost a job or were threatened with firing for taking time off because of personal or family illness.
Most people understand the need for paid sick leave from their own experience. In fact, 85 percent of voters in one survey agree that employers should offer paid sick days. Paid sick days laws are or will soon be in place in 23 jurisdictions across the country — four states, the District of Columbia and 18 localities, including one large metropolitan county. While that progress is encouraging, four states doing the right thing leaves 46 more to go. The Healthy Families Act — which would guarantee up to seven days of paid sick leave a year in businesses with 15 or more employees — is a good start.
A Thanksgiving dinner should mean that families can celebrate the blessing of a standard of living protected by laws that ensure workers, particularly women and families, are treated fairly. Too often, Thanksgiving is only a single day of respite from a harsh workplace environment where millions of workers are one illness or one inadequate and unequal paycheck away from economic disaster. We can make next Thanksgiving the quintessential American celebration it should be if we push Congress to do the right thing for the least fortunate among us — pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Raise the Wage Act, and the Healthy Families Act.
Nancy K. Kaufman is the chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women.