Working Women Still Running Hard To Stay in Place

In the best of times, women still don't fare as well financially as men, not by a long shot-and this hot economy proves it. True, women's wages have risen during the past two years, but they have only recovered ground lost in the past 20.

Comparatively speaking, working women are doing very well as the first Labor Day of the new millennium arrives-as long as they don't wish to spend time with their families, get sick or retire.

Women's wages have risen during the past two years, however women have only regained ground lost during the past two decades.

At the same time, women are working more hours per week while receiving fewer benefits such as health insurance and pensions.

Those are some of the conclusions of the 2000-20001 edition of the “The State of Working America,” a statistical analysis of labor data published every other Labor Day by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based non-partisan economic think tank.

“No matter how you look at it, this is one of the best Labor Days workers have had in the last two decades-wages are up, incomes are up, unemployment is at a 30-year low,” said John Schmitt, a labor economist and co-author of the 444-page tome.

“But it's all relative. Four or five years ago, the circumstances were so bleak.”

Women earn substantially less than men in the three wage categories.

By 1999 women's wages returned to 1979 ‘constant' dollars

The surging economy of the late 1990s stemmed the tide of flat or declining real wages that plagued women throughout the 1980s. The tight labor market of the late 1990s meant that by 1999, women's wages had grown-back to about what they were in 1979 in constant dollars.

Family incomes also grew by more than 9 percent at the end of the decade-but about half of the gain can be attributed to families working longer hours, amounting to an additional 182 hours, or 4.5 weeks, of work a year for the average two-income American family. For two-earner black families, the workload increased by nearly 500 hours, or 12.5 weeks, of work a year.

While the news on the income front in this report is encouraging, it is offset by some truly disturbing news on the benefit front.

  • More than 4 in 10 women work at jobs that do not provide health insurance for them or their families. That's an improvement over their dismal coverage in 1995, but still below comparable 1979 figures.

  • Fewer than half of working women have any kind of employer-provided retirement plan. And of those, most are eligible only for a defined contribution plan that would provide benefits limited to workers who invest in them.

Break the numbers down by race and it gets even worse.

While 66.4 percent of all white workers have employer-provided health insurance, only 58.4 percent of black workers do, and just 44.6 percent of Hispanic workers. The report does not break these data down further by gender.

When it comes to pensions, slightly more than half of white workers have them, compared with 42.4 percent of black workers and just 28.4 percent of Hispanic workers. These statistics as well are not further defined by gender.

Employees, employers feel less mutual loyalty

“It's the casualization of the work force-and I don't mean Dress Down Fridays,” Schmitt said. “Employers feel less loyalty to workers and workers feel less loyalty to employers. That shows itself in these numbers.”

“The biggest problems workers face are not going to be solved by higher wages: They don't have health insurance. They have a time squeeze. Paid vacations, sick leave, maternal leave-those benefits solve the time squeeze, not higher wages,” he said.

Karen Nussbaum, director of the Working Women's Department of the AFL-CIO, said that the need for better working conditions is just one reason why women have been joining unions at a faster clip than men for the last 15 years.

“The good news is that women know we are in the work force to stay, so we'd better make the changes we need to thrive. I feel like we are right on the edge of really seeing big changes,” she said.

One thing that has not changed, according to the institute's report: The rich keep getting richer faster. The real wage of the median CEO rose 62.7 percent from 1998 to 1999, so that he-and it's still true that all but a handful of CEOs are men-was being paid 107 times more than the typical worker, nearly double the gap reported in 1989.

Wage gender gap continues apace: 77 cents to $1.00

Across incomes and occupations, women were paid slightly less than 77 cents for every dollar paid to a male worker. While the gap is narrowing, it is closing at a much slower rate than in previous years. Even at the top end of the wage scale, the statistics show that the median pay for men is $38 an hour vs. $28 an hour for women.

At the middle levels, the average man is paid $13.40 an hour while the average woman is paid $10.31. At the very bottom pay levels, men get $6.59 an hour versus $5.77 for women, who still are the majority of workers toiling for poverty-level wages.

The pay gap for new entrants to the work force has narrowed slightly, primarily because men's wages have fallen. Male high school graduates entering the work force in 1973 averaged $12.42 an hour versus $9.09 for women. By 1999, the average wages for men who had just graduated from high school had fallen by more than $3 an hour, to $9.27, while women's wages fell $1.20 to $7.89 an hour.

Melissa Josephs, senior policy associate with Women Employed, a Chicago-based advocacy group for working women, blames discrimination in hiring, promotion and pay for the continued wage gap.

“It might not be as blatant as it was 20 years ago, but we still get calls on our hotline from women who are still suffering from the glass ceiling. At least they have a job, or a job in management, but men are still getting more promotions and ending up in the higher paid jobs,” she said.

Cindy Richards has been a professional journalist in Chicago for 20 years. She has worked for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, where she wrote the Working Women column. As a reporter and editorial writer, she has covered health care, children's issues, education and women's issues. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991.