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Women of Color Remain Among the Most Poorly Paid of All US Workers

It’s no secret that women in the American workforce earn significantly less money than their male counterparts. Despite ongoing legislation efforts and movements such as “Equal Pay Day” to create equity between all workers, the Department of Labor still estimates that the average woman earns just 81% of what a man doing the same job is paid.

A new study from the independent anti-poverty group Oxfam paints an even more dire picture of wage inequality in the U.S. According to the group’s calculations, roughly one-third of all American workers are currently earning less than $15 an hour. And women — Black and Hispanic women in particular — are much more likely to fall within that group than their white, male counterparts.

Inside the Report

To compile its report, Oxfam analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent 5-year American Community Survey along with its ongoing Current Population Survey. The organization then used that information to create a model showing average wage rates across the country by various populations.

The biggest overall takeaway from the group’s research: approximately 31.9% of the U.S. workforce earns sub $15 an hour wage. And within that group, there also remains a number of broad racial, gender and geographic disparities.

Forty percent of working women still earn less than $15 an hour. In contrast, just 25% of men in the workforce are paid that same rate.

Disparities among racial and ethnic groups in the Oxfam data were also striking. While 26% of white workers earn less than $15 an hour, the group said that 46% of Hispanic workers and 47% of Black workers are paid at that rate. And among working women of color, more than half make less than $15 an hour.

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Geography Matters

As with most matters related to pay across the country, the Oxfam study confirmed that where a worker was employed could have a dramatic impact on her overall earning potential. Not surprisingly, states with the best and most effective minimum wage laws also tended to have the lowest number of workers earning sub $15 an hour wage.

For example, in Washington, D.C. — which is the only area in the country where the minimum wage currently tops $15 an hour — just 9% of workers were paid less than $15 an hour, according to Oxfam calculations. (By race, those figures break down to 13% of Black workers and 15% of Hispanic workers.)

But in even a high-performing location like Washington, D.C., gender disparities still persist. An estimated 12% of female workers in the District of Columbia are still making less than $15 an hour, and 17% of working women of color in the district have salaries below that figure, according to Oxfam.

Similar numbers, and gender and racial disparities, were found in Washington state and California, which are the second and third best paying states in the country. (In Washington, the current minimum wage is $13.69 per hour. In California, it’s $13 per hour.)

In contrast, Oxfam found that the largest overall low-earning workforce was in Puerto Rico, where an astonishing 76% of all workers are paid less than $15 per hour. After that island territory, the two worst paying states on the mainland were Mississippi and New Mexico.

Oxfam researchers calculated that in the Magnolia state, 45% of all workers are paid less than $15 per hour — likely because Mississippi has no statewide minimum wage and instead follows the federal minimum pay rate of $7.25 an hour. (Among those low-paid workers in Mississippi, 63% are Black and 70% are working women of color.)

In New Mexico, 44% of workers are paid less than $15 an hour, Oxfam said.

In terms of the overall population, among the massive workforce in Texas, approximately 5.7 million workers are paid less than $15 an hour, while in sunny Florida, that figure tops more than 4 million. California has more than 3 million workers earning less than $15 an hour, and New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, Michigan and North Carolina each come in with more than 2 million workers toiling at a near-poverty rate.

An Ongoing Problem

Oxfam isn’t the only group to recently examine just how poorly women in the country are paid, and what that disparity can mean over time. In March, the National Women’s Law Center looked at pay inequality between the sexes in the U.S. and calculated that the average woman would need to work an additional twelve years to match the average American man’s earnings.

The group also pointed out that over the last year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, women’s progress in the workplace had fallen dramatically, with the loss of nearly 1.5 million net jobs. (An estimated 70% of jobs lost overall because of the pandemic were among female workers.)

What Can Be Done?

Public and corporate awareness initiatives help, but they likely aren’t enough to dig the country out of a problem that’s persisted for decades. Oxfam has several policy recommendations it hopes could help to raise working wages across all groups and among women of color. These include federal Congressional passage of the “Raise the Wage Act,” which would create a universal national, local and state passage of similar laws if the country’s top governing bodies can’t come to an agreement on a minimum wage policy, as well as an increase in the subminimum wage for tipped workers from $2.13 (which was set in 1991) to the full federal minimum wage.

In addition, Oxfam suggests the government could also help in the fight against low working wages by subsidizing childcare working wages and by supporting companies that have shown they pay their workers fair and equal wages.

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