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3 Ways Women Workers are Fighting Discrimination, Wage Theft, and Abuse on the Job

Women workers are attacking low pay and bias from many angles, assailing wage laws that exclude them, suing over outright discrimination, and trying to organize unions.

 Women workers are attacking low pay and bias from many angles, assailing wage laws that exclude them, suing over outright discrimination, and trying to organize unions. And they’ve been confronting the disrespect that accompanies smaller paychecks.

The pay gap between men and women actually shrank in 2011. Women now average 82.2 percent of men’s earnings—but the numbers don’t indicate progress because all workers lost buying power.

The gap decreased only because women’s pay didn’t drop as far as men’s, losing 0.9 percent while men lost 2.1 percent, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Black women earned 69.5 percent of white men’s earnings, and Latina women 60.5 percent.

The pay gap amounts to an average lifetime loss of $379,000, according to the Department of Labor. Or, looked at from the perspective of a Hyatt or a Walmart, every three women workers means another million dollars in executive pockets.

$2.13 Minimum Wage


Discrimination is sometimes encoded in law, by mandating lower pay for jobs held mostly by women. Restaurant waitstaff and other tipped workers—nearly three-quarters of them women—used to receive more than half the federal minimum wage as their base pay.

But a furious lobbying effort by the National Restaurant Association changed that, shortly before the federal minimum wage was raised in 1996. The “tipped minimum” has languished at 1991 levels ever since.

That means that in most states, tipped restaurant workers can legally be paid $2.13 an hour, as long as their tips bring them up to the federal or state minimum wage. If the tips don’t add up, the employer is supposed to make up the difference.

But restaurant workers say this is largely fiction in an industry known for many flavors of wage theft. Claudia Muñoz, a server in Texas, said she was forced to report more tips than she had received so her bosses at a pancake restaurant wouldn’t have to make up the difference. Now she’s an activist with the Restaurant Opportunities Center in Houston.

In another effort, coordinated by ROC United nationally, workers in five cities are suing their employer, Capital Grille, for making them work off the clock and paying them the tipped minimum when they weren’t doing tipped work. The suit also alleges that Capital Grille, part of Darden Restaurants, fired Black servers because corporate leaders wanted a whiter waitstaff.

ROC United is cranking up a campaign to eliminate the lower minimum for tipped workers in more states and on the federal level.

In mid-February the group released a study, “ Tipped over the Edge,” focusing on gender inequality in the restaurant industry. States that have eliminated the lower wage for tipped workers, including California, Washington, and Minnesota, have lower poverty rates among restaurant servers, despite having similar overall poverty rates, according to the study.

Gender bias is notorious in retail, too. Women workers suing for discrimination at Walmart were dealt a setback last summer when the U.S. Supreme Court said their record-breaking suit was too big. Now they’ve returned to court in California and Texas, suing on behalf of 140,000 current and former Walmart employees who they say experienced sex discrimination in pay and promotions in those states.

Hyatt Humiliation


Management at the Hyatt hotel in Santa Clara, California, celebrated “housekeepers appreciation week” last September by grafting photographs of housekeepers’ faces onto bikini-clad bodies riding surfboards.

Martha Reyes saw the photos after she heard managers laughing by the bulletin board. “I felt humiliated, my reaction was to be angry,” she said. “I tore down my picture and my sister’s picture.”

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