Even before the pandemic exposed deep disparities in our economy and society, the gender wage gap persisted at every level of income and education. In 2019, two-thirds of minimum-wage workers were women. Women carry two-thirds of all student debt in the United States. Black women graduate with significantly more debt than White men and take longer to pay it off, as they earn just 62 cents for every dollar earned by White men. In 2019, nearly a quarter of female-headed households lived in poverty; for households headed by Black or Latina women, the rates were closer to 30 percent.
Only if our recovery is inclusive can we emerge from this crisis stronger.
Inclusivity requires state leadership as well as a comprehensive national strategy to ensure women’s economic security, health and safety. Front-line workers in the pandemic have struggled to keep patients safe amid inadequate staffing and insufficient protective gear such as masks and gloves. Our nation needs policies that guarantee personal protective equipment for essential workers and safety standards that protect those on the front line and the public.
Nationwide, wages must be raised, the right to form a union must be secured, and access to basic benefits such as paid sick leave and affordable health care must be guaranteed and protected. That means breaking down the barriers that care providers confront when they try to organize unions. Workers in male-dominated professions such as manufacturing and construction were able to catapult themselves into the middle class by forming unions. Having that same right is key for women to raise their wages.
By working together in Rhode Island, we made sure that child-care workers could choose to join a union quickly and easily — something child-care workers in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have done in several states to win higher wages, paid leave and professional development. We are partnering again to build a union-run training program that helps home health aides become independent providers, cutting out agency middlemen and improving wages.
Beyond state-based initiatives, change is needed at the federal level. Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan would invest in 3 million family-supporting caregiving jobs, with fair wages and the right to join a union. Workers need this in every industry.
Additionally, women, particularly women of color, must have affordable pathways into higher-wage industries. Completing college boosts individual incomes and overall gross domestic product, but women underpaid in their current work should not be asked to take on unsustainable college debt. Since community college in Rhode Island went tuition-free for recent high school graduates in 2017, four times as many low-income students and nine times as many students of color are graduating within two years. To remove barriers to employment, Rhode Island has banned noncompete clauses in low-wage jobs. Everybody should have the chance to pursue higher-wage job opportunities.
Job-training programs also must be reassessed. For too long, workers have been told to take a risk and invest in credentials without any guarantee of a good job. But job training is effective only if it results in work. Similarly, apprenticeships are equitable only if programs are intentional about including women and workers of color. Rhode Island is using its Cares Act funds to launch an apprenticeship program — in partnership with more than a dozen major employers, nonprofits and unions — that has secured commitments to hire recently unemployed workers into good jobs once they complete training. Workers get support during their training, with income and “wraparound services” such as child care. Further, the program builds pathways for women and workers of color — setting concrete hiring targets and recruiting through nontraditional avenues. Through Rhode Island’s partnership with SEIU alone, hundreds of women will be trained and placed in good jobs by year’s end.
Finally, a broad-based recovery must include a strategy to support working women as caregivers. This includes universal access to paid family leave, sick leave and child care. Better child-care options can help women rejoin the workforce, improve job prospects and boost GDP. Investment in universal public pre-K and quality, affordable child-care programs is critical. More federal support is needed to build on this across the country.
If we keep doing the same things, we will keep getting the same results: an insecure workforce and weak recovery. To build an equitable and resilient economy, let’s start with women.