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.
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 to 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 with the earnings of white men doing comparable work. That’s certainly bad enough, but the pay disparities are especially burdensome to women of color. That is why passing the Paycheck Fairness Act to update and strengthen existing laws is so critical.
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.
And, workers — especially women — need workplace policies that don’t force them 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 for every 30 hours worked 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. 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.