The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. has the widest wage gap for Black women. This 72-year-old doesn’t need data to know that.

Venorica Tucker, 72, has held service industry jobs since she was 13. (Courtesy of Venorica Tucker)

Venorica Tucker laughs when asked when she hopes to retire.

“I’ll probably have to work until I die,” the 72-year-old says, “and that’s just the truth.”

She doesn’t say that bitterly, or sadly. It’s not some new realization. Her life has been working toward that direction for a while.

The D.C. native, who goes by Vee, has no savings, no 401(k) and no house in her name to pass down to her children.

What she does have: a résumé crowded with service industry jobs that have seen her working since the age of 13.

As Tucker tells it, she was in junior high when she started working with her older sisters in the concession area of Arena Stage. They spent their time making popcorn, pouring sodas and, on their luckiest days, watching shows.

Later, she says, life saw her waitressing at a Hot Shoppe, working at a drugstore and eventually serving up food and mixing drinks for the U.S. House of Representatives. Tucker says she held the latter job for more than 30 years when on March 19, 2020, after the coronavirus started causing closures throughout the D.C. region, she and the rest of the staff were told to go home and wait on word for when to return.

“No one was thinking it would be a year and a half of nothing,” Tucker says. “I’ve always worked. I’ve never sat home.”

She readily admits that she has always known financial struggle. But now, she confesses, the stability she has been chasing has slipped even further away.

“That’s just what it is,” she says.

D.C. has the widest wage gap for Black women in the nation. That is one finding of an analysis that the National Women’s Law Center conducted and released in time for Black women’s equal payday, which is Tuesday.

Black women working full-time, year-round in the nation’s capital earn 49 cents for every dollar White, non-Hispanic men make, the analysis found.

Comparatively, the national numbers show that Black women earn 63 cents for every dollar paid to White, non-Hispanic men. That difference, over the course of a 40-year career, amounts to $964,400, the analysis found. The difference in D.C., over the course of that same career span, amounts to $2,125,920.

But what about when we look at higher-paying jobs? Or the college-educated? Or other factors?

When looking at any data, it’s natural to want to flip it around to see if the picture might change when looked at from a different angle.

Jasmine Tucker, who is not related to Vee, is the director of research for the National Women’s Law Center. She says she looked at the numbers from every possible angle, including across job types, age and educational differences, and the gap doesn’t go away. It shrinks and it widens, but it doesn’t disappear.

It exists in 94 percent of occupations and remains even when it comes to people with advanced degrees, she says.

She also points out that those numbers don’t capture other losses that result because of the gap.

“It’s more than just you losing 37 cents on the dollar,” she says. “It’s all these lost opportunities along the way. You weren’t able to invest in a business. You weren’t able to invest in your education. You weren’t able to invest in your child’s education. You weren’t able to buy a home. And that has reverberations for generations.”

For many Black women during the pandemic, she says, “the wage gap has completely robbed them of being able to weather this storm. . . . If we learned anything during this pandemic, it was that normal was not good, it was not healthy.”

So often the conversations we have about racial inequity are based on our emotions and our experiences. They are filled with subjectivity. The wage gap data from the National Women’s Law Center is important because it offers a numbers-based look at the inequity. It allows us to see how Black women can work their entire lives and still end up having nothing to leave their children but debt.

It explains the worries that some young women carry with them as they enter the job market.

In a piece for Teen Vogue, Kanyin Shonibare writes about moving to Maryland from Lagos, Nigeria, in 2018.

“I was 16 years old and excited to stretch my wings in a country that valued women’s equality,” she writes. Then came the pandemic. “The outbreak has changed my view of this country by showing me there are millions of hard-working women here who are disregarded and forgotten.”

She describes learning how women in low-paid jobs on the front lines of the fight against covid-19 lacked basic financial protections, paid sick leave and health care — and how on top of all that, they “face a gender wage gap that continues to pay them less than men doing the same job.”

“How can this be happening in the United States, the so-called richest country in the world?” she writes.

Shonibare, who is now 20, is a senior at the University of Maryland and has worked on pay equity issues with the Woman’s National Law Center. In 2022, she plans to go to law school. If she does, based on the wage gap analysis, she will earn less than her White male counterparts.

Nationally, Black women with bachelor’s degrees or higher earn 64 cents for every dollar White men make, and Black women with doctorates earn 73 cents for every dollar White men make.

Venorica Tucker couldn’t tell you any of those numbers or the breakdown of the wage gap. What she does know, though, is that she has never earned enough to take her family on a vacation and that over the years, she has seen women become banquet servers, do a great job and earn nothing for it but more work.

“You pretty much end up running the whole thing and do an excellent job and just find yourself being taken advantage of,” she says. “It’s been African American, Ethiopian and Hispanic women. We come in and we do more work and we make less.”

She says that while working as a bartender and server for the U.S. House of Representatives, she also held a job as a banquet bartender at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. By her count, since the pandemic began, she has worked only three small events at the Trade Center.

She says that has left her unable to keep up with the payments on her sister’s house in Maryland, where she moved after her sister died. She is now planning to move into an apartment in Alexandria with her two sons, but does so worrying if they’ll be able to keep up with the rent, which is $2,150 a month, not including utilities.

Even so, she is not sitting around with her worries, doing nothing. It’s not in her nature.

She started a weekly Zoom meeting for co-workers from both of her jobs who are now out of work. The purpose, she says, is for them to come together to help one another and come up with ideas for alternative sources of income. So far, they have put together a cookbook and have plans to create a series of them. They also hope to raise enough money to start a food truck business Already they know the name: Fries in Disguise.

As Tucker speaks about these plans, it’s easy to forget she is 72. Excitement fills her voice, and she shows no sign of slowing down.

But even if she wanted to, she’s right — she can’t.

The wage gap analysis shows that for her to make as much as a White man who retires at the age of 60, she would have to work until she’s 101.

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