The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The expensive problem with the ‘Day Without a Woman’

A group of women from Iowa City gathers near the Capitol for the Women's March on Jan. 21. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

From the organizers of the Women’s March, a global demonstration that flooded streets with pink-hat-wearing women after Donald Trump's inauguration, comes A Day Without a Woman — a strike, set for Wednesday, that asks women to skip work. The goal is to show the world what life would be like without them. But many poor women would have to sacrifice pay to participate, while wealthier ones probably wouldn’t lose a penny.

That’s because most low-income earners lack access to a single day of paid leave, even if the flu strikes or a baby arrives. Well-paid employees, meanwhile, tend to have the most generous benefits, including paid sick days and family leave.

The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals sharp disparities along income lines. Among the country’s bottom 10 percent of earners, for example, just 28 percent can take a day off without any income interruption. Forty percent in the lowest quarter have that luxury. A whopping 90 percent of the top 10 percent of earners, however, can miss a shift and still get paid.

Rosie Molina, who works at a District restaurant for $7.50 an hour, woke early to march on the Mall in January. Then she rushed downtown for an afternoon shift. Molina was proud to have briefly joined the movement — her cause is immigrant rights — but she cannot afford to take part in Wednesday's strike, which would cost her about $60. That's two weeks of groceries. 

“I’m a single mother,” Molina said. “I don’t have the luxury. The last time I took a day off, my paycheck was very low.”

[Is 'A Day Without A Woman' protest elitist?]

Taria Vines, 44, who makes about $350 each week as a caterer in the Bronx, decided to take the day off to march Wednesday in the nation's capital with some friends. Vines figures she’ll lose a chunk of pay — probably enough to cover her cellphone bill — but she still wanted to take a stand against sexual harassment and discrimination.

“It’s costing me money to do this,” she said, “but if I don’t fight for what’s right for me, who will?”

Access to paid leave also cuts across racial lines. Since black and Hispanic families are twice as likely to be among the working poor than white and Asian households are, these female breadwinners are less likely to be able to join the strike without financial damage.

Then there’s the women who could lose their jobs if they miss a day on the clock. Half of American mothers ages 18 to 34, for example, aren’t eligible for unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, according to a January analysis from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a District think tank. (The law provides job-protected days off mostly to full-time workers at companies with more than 50 employees.)

“The higher-income women, largely working in white-collar jobs — white women — are the ones more likely to take paid leave in order to participate,” said Jessica Milli, study director at the institute. “The women most impacted by the issues this whole movement is about are the ones least likely to take that leave in order to participate.”

The organizers of A Day Without a Woman acknowledge the uneven access on their website. “Many women in our most vulnerable communities will not have the ability to join the strike, due to economic insecurity,” they wrote. “We strike for them. Many others work jobs that provide essential services, including reproductive health services, and taking off work would come at a great social cost. We recognize the value of their contribution.”