Last month, a group of women-led organizations hosted a panel discussion on the issues facing women in the workplace at the Philadelphia Inquirer office.
Reeling from recent attacks on women’s rights and dignity at work and beyond, women gathered to refocus and commit to the next step in the fight for women’s rights. Issues addressed included the wage gap, paid sick days, unstable schedules, and childcare.
Carol Tracy from the Women’s Law Project moderated a panel featuring:
- Seattle Councilmember Lorena González, elected in 2015, the first person of Mexican descent to be elected to the city council. Proud daughter of Mexican immigrant parents.
- Juliana Reyes, Inquirer reporter who covers workplace issues.
- Elicia Gonzales with Women’s Medical Fund which provides abortion access.
- Dawn McCray of Communities in Schools, a non-profit that supports city children.
Jovida Hill with Commission for Women introduced the panelists. “All women should be able to support themselves, their families and their communities without being subjected to unfair working conditions. All women deserve to live and work with dignity,” Hill told attendees. Hill praised Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym (At-Large) for tirelessly working on behalf of women, children and families.
Tracy noted that Philadelphia is “way ahead” of federal law and state law in a lot of the protections that are available here. She said six or eight years ago, there was a major revision of Fair Practice Ordinance that included coverage for pregnant women and nursing mothers that is not covered by other laws. Fair Practice Ordinance added domestic workers to its ordinance. Tracy said we have a paid sick leave bill – five days – “not enough but it’s a start.” We have a Wage Theft Act, where employers steal money from their employees.
Tracy discussed the pay gap: white women earn 82 cents on the dollar and black women earn 68 cents on the dollar. “PA’s minimum wage has not increased since 2009 while all of our other neighboring states have. Many individuals work several jobs and live paycheck to paycheck,” she said.
Gonzales noted that all folks who call the Women’s Medical Fund help line are living in incredible poverty, earning $8,000 a year or less. Most already have kids at home and are struggling to make ends meet.
Councilmember González represented dozens of victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace as a trial lawyer. When asked about what is needed regarding sexual harassment, she said: “Something I think is really important for cities to do, for municipal governments to do, is to invest in systems that support survivors of sexual assault and sexual violence. On a local level, we play an important role in making sure that the person asking for justice and asking for their voice to be heard is actually given a fair shot at having that voice heard through having legal advocacy for him or herself.”
Women face low wages, underemployment and inadequate benefits
Low wages, underemployment and inadequate benefits–so many women in the workforce face all of these. When Reyes talked to retail and service workers, she found that some of them were begging for more hours at their jobs.
“Laws aren’t the silver bullet. There needs to be enforcement,” she said. Reyes interviewed a Macy’s worker in Seattle and reported on it for the Inquirer. Under the secure scheduling law, when her employer cut one of her shifts after that two weeks period, she knew she was entitled to get premium pay or paid for that shift that was cut. It was on her to hold her employer accountable.
McCray said Communities in Schools serves 11,000 youth in 26 schools citywide. Scheduling impacts youth and their families. Site coordinators at the schools that are working directly with the young people “try to help them alleviate barriers and keep them from dropping out”. Aside from academics, employment is the number one issue.
“Imagine being employed, and you don’t know your schedule from one week to the next. You already made your monthly budget based on the hours you were supposed to be guaranteed,” she said. “I have so many parents that are trying to work on their GED or associate’s degree and they give their hours to their employer.” That might be great for a ten-day period but then the employer decides to do something different. This affects how they can schedule basic appointments like doctor visits.
For Councilmember González, it was important for her to fight for this law. She was approached by a group of retail and fast food workers who told her profound stories the impact not having a predictable schedule was causing in their lives – “not being able to see their child grow up,” for example. Scheduling child care was a nightmare for some mothers and it was almost easier to not work. They were being forced to make decisions about being a Mom or working to provide for their children.
It’s intergenerational, older and young service workers. González grew up as a migrant farm worker in central Washington, “had to move through the world with the baggage of generational poverty. I had to work three jobs myself to put myself through college.”
Corporations increase their profit margins on the backs of working and middle class
Noting that Seattle is an affluent city, “it all boils down to the fact that these corporations want to continue to increase their profit margins on the backs of working class, middle class families, most of which are women, most of which are women of color, many of whom are immigrants and refugees,” she said. This is why she fought for Secure Scheduling and the Fair Workweek law.
Councilmember González said it took ten years to get the Paid Family Medical Leave Act passed in Washington state legislature. It took advocacy by a broad coalition. She used the bully pulpit to highlight the issues that working women face as it relates to paid Family Medical Leave.
Not having paid leave, how does it affect parents and students? McCray said you never want to choose between your child or your job. When you have instability, what she sees is “oftentimes, you’re not talking about individuals that may have an entire village to wrap around them when their childcare issues surface.”
“It creates a situation where individuals are really stuck, and they may make choices that they would not make if they had leave that would protect their jobs,” McCray told the audience.