Glass Ceiling? Some of Us Are Still Trying to Earn a Living Wage

People who do the work that makes other work possible—child- and home-care workers, most of them women—are joining the 4/15 fight for $15 an hour. But will their voices finally be heard?

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We’re going to hear a lot about glass ceilings over the next year or two.

Women and their power is a subject near and dear to my heart, as I’m sure it is to most DAME readers. And so I’m thinking today of the women who are going to express that power this week, in the streets, in protests outside of the nation’s fast-food outlets and in its major cities, from Atlanta to New York, Seattle (where that movement scored its first major victory) to San Diego.

The Fight for $15 has been dominated by women from the start, as women make up the majority of fast-food workers. This week, the campaign is touting the home-care and child-care workers who will be joining the fight this Wednesday—workforces that are 90 and 94 percent female, respectively.

According to a new report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP), women are 54.7 percent of those who make under $15 an hour—and the sub-$15 workforce is a full 42 percent of the overall U.S. workforce. More than half of Black workers and nearly 60 percent of Latino workers make less than $15 an hour. Almost 90 percent of workers in home care and child care, make less than $15 an hour. Over 33 percent of home-care workers and almost 15 percent of child-care workers are Black; around 20 percent of each field are Latina. And since it’s “Equal Pay Day”—the one day in the year where the average woman has caught up with what the men in her field made the previous year, though the date is even further out for Black women and still further for Latinas—we should note that even in women-dominated industries, men make more money.

It is all well and good to talk about the value of shattering glass ceilings, but the women at the bottom are looking to do some shattering of their own these days, against similarly overwhelming odds.

Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance calls care work “the work that makes all other work possible,” and she is right. For women to enter the workforce, to ascend to the point where the glass ceiling is even within reach, they have mostly depended not on men to pick up the slack of family care but on other women, lower-paid and written off as less important. Betty Friedan (in)famously suggested that housework and care work were “peculiarly suited to the capacities of feeble-minded girls” when demanding access, for middle-class women, to prestigious and male-dominated professions.

And so home-care workers like Rebecca Sandoval, who, when I spoke to her in 2013, hadn’t had a raise in six years, make about $9.70 an hour; this for a rapidly growing industry expected to add over a million jobs by 2020. In-home child-care providers like Nancy Harvey, who left a corporate job to become an early childhood educator, are paid by the child, not the hour, meaning that they’re often paid less than minimum wage. Both women noted that when your job is caring for others, it’s not like you can simply clock out at the end of the workday. When parents are stuck at work, Harvey keeps their children late; when her 99-year-old client is moving slowly, Sandoval stays longer even though the state, which pays her salary through Medicaid, caps her hours.

These workers, unlike the fast-food workers whose one-day strikes and boisterous protests have captured the nation’s attention, work behind closed doors in their homes or somebody else’s. They are easy to forget, sometimes too easy even for the people who employ them to forget.

Some of those care workers are already union members; their dues as members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in part, have been going to help support the fast-food strikes, paying the organizers and press consultants who do the work of pulling together these multi-city events. And yet even with union contracts, their rights have been under attack, most recently from the Supreme Court in last year’s Harris v. Quinn decision. Their work is denigrated as not real work. As Nancy Harvey says, “Our kindness is mistaken for weakness.”

That kindness is presumed to be a natural trait that women have, that makes us inherently suited to care work. It means that our needs always come second to those of others. The cracking of a few glass ceilings has done something to change the way women’s capabilities are perceived, but not nearly enough to change the way women are siloed in low-paying, emotionally labor-intensive jobs.

So those care workers will be joining other service employees in the streets on Wednesday, a strike timed not just for tax day or out of wordplay (“for $15 on 4/15”) but to coincide with the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign, one where, it is presumed, inequality, low wages, and the still-shaky state of the economy will be on everyone’s mind. One election back, this past fall, voters in the reddest of so-called red states voted for minimum wage increases, and even Republican candidates acknowledged the struggles of their constituents to make ends meet. Large majorities of Americans, according to recent polls, think the wealthy have too much influence in politics—including 71 percent of Republicans. The Fight for $15 aims to give perceptive politicians an issue to campaign on, an issue that will raise the floor for workers across the board. These workers are looking to make enough trouble to make themselves impossible to ignore.

The Fight for $15 often evokes comparison to the shorter-hours movement, first for a ten-hour and then an eight-hour day, a call that cut across industries and unified male and female, Black and White workers (though it was especially popular with women). Codified into law in a way with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which mandates overtime pay along with the minimum wage, labor mostly gave up on unifying demands, focusing instead on victories contract by contract, workplace by workplace, industry by industry. Home care and other domestic workers were left out of that era’s labor protections (largely because, along with farmworkers, domestic workers were mostly Black women). It is important that they be at the center of any new labor protections won today. As we learned from that exclusion, the conditions of the worst-off workers will wind up working their way up to all of us—Poo notes that the “precarious” labor conditions often discussed breathlessly in today’s media are mostly the conditions domestic workers always faced, a lack of security, low wages, and bosses who were free to abuse with little scrutiny from the outside.

And so as the election coverage begins and the media pores over the personality quirks and gaffes of different candidates, analyzes campaign logos and slices and dices the electorate demographic by demographic, remember that the biggest change for working women will come not through a victory at the top, but from victories for the vast numbers at the bottom, on whose support so many of us depend. 


Photo credit: Flickr user Bob Simpson



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