Raising the Illinois minimum wage is a long overdue measure to increase the economic security of women and families. The mandated minimum wage in Illinois is only $8.25 an hour, which translates to around $16,000 a year for a full-time worker. For tipped workers such as food servers and nail salon technicians, minimum wage is even less—just $4.95 an hour. For low-wage working women and families, getting by on minimum wage is nearly impossible: a single mother with one preschooler and one school-age child in Illinois would need at least $50,000 per year in income in order to meet all basic needs such as rent, food, transportation, health, and child care without government support.
Women make up just under half of the national workforce but account for roughly 60 percent of minimum-wage workers and nearly 73 percent of tipped workers. An inadequate minimum wage unduly affects women workers negatively because women are highly concentrated in low-wage industries such as food service, retail, and home health care, where their wages most often only meet or slightly exceed minimum wage. Despite progress in the workplace, women still earn less overall than men in all occupations—a wage gap that translates into thousands of unearned income and lost retirement savings over a lifetime. Women (and particularly single mothers and women of color) are at an increased risk of living in poverty; the percentage of women living in poverty reached an all-time high in the wake of the economic downturn. Raising the minimum wage would help low- and middle-wage earners by boosting the wage floor and increasing living standards for all. Women workers would disproportionately benefit, and this makes raising the minimum wage a pressing issue for women and families who are struggling.
Women Work in Most Low-Wage Jobs
Families are relying more and more on women’s wages, but the decline in the real value of the minimum wage over the past 40 years has pushed down all wages in sectors where women are concentrated. More than 1.5 million married couples with children relied exclusively on women’s earnings at some point in 2009, and 6.1 million single mothers were the sole breadwinners for their households in 2010. Yet in 2009 women accounted for more than half of all workers within several industry sectors, including financial activities, education and health services, and leisure and hospitality services, within which they usually have the lowest-paying positions. Women were substantially underrepresented in agriculture, mining, construction, manufacturing, transportation, and utilities, where wages are most often well above the minimum wage.
Those female-dominated sectors are some of the fastest-growing sources of low-wage jobs: retail salespersons, registered nurses, home health and personal care aides, and food servers are all in occupations with the most job growth expected through 2020. Personal care aides are expected to grow by as much as 70 percent, and home health aides by 69 percent. Yet the median annual salary for women-dominated occupations is only somewhat above minimum-wage levels. This is astonishingly low for a family to thrive on: in 2010 the median annual salary for retail workers was just $20,670 and only $18,330 a year for food servers. Despite the projected growth of job opportunity, these jobs, without an increase in the minimum wage, will fail to pay enough for women to cover even the fundamental costs of living, let alone achieve economic security.
What’s more, domestic workers and home health aides, again occupations that are overwhelmingly female, are not guaranteed any minimum wage at all due to exemptions under state and federal laws. These women are professionals who do the work that makes all other work possible; they clean homes, tend to children, and care for society’s most vulnerable—people with disabilities, seniors, and the sick. Guaranteeing the minimum wage for these women workers and compensating them fairly would ensure that all hardworking women can live secure lives.
Women Earn Lower Wages
Women make less than men across all occupations, and this adversely affects their long-term security and retirement. The average working woman earns just 77 cents to her male counterpart’s dollar; over time this translates to $10,849 less per year in female median earnings. For racial-minority women, the wage gap is even worse; African American women make only 62 cents and Latinas only 53 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men. Tipped women workers suffer even greater pay disparities, particularly in food services. Women earn 83 cents less per hour than do men in the restaurant industry because women are more likely to be employed by fast-food restaurants than by fine-dining establishments.
Women Are Disproportionately Affected by Poverty
Poverty among women in the United States rose from 13.9 percent in 2009 to 14.5 percent in 2010—the highest rate in 17 years. Extreme poverty among women also rose from 5.9 percent in 2009 to 6.3 percent in 2010—meaning that 7.5 million women lived on incomes less than half of the federal poverty level. Poverty rates for all groups of women in 2010 were higher than the rates of their male counterparts, with the highest rates among the most vulnerable populations—female-headed families with children, women with disabilities, women 65 and older living alone, and racial-minority women. In Illinois 15 percent of women, compared with 12.6 percent of men, lived below the poverty line.
Raising the Minimum Wage Makes Sense
Raising the minimum wage would put more money into the pockets of low-wage women. Women make up over half of the workers who would have a raise in pay if the minimum wage were raised in Illinois, and racial and ethnic minorities, who make up a third (33.1 percent) of the workforce, would make up more than two-fifths (41.3 percent) of affected workers. Most of those who would benefit have families who rely heavily on them economically. The increase in wages would allow women and families not only to be secure in the present but also to save for the future or for emergencies.
Raising the minimum wage would have a positive impact on the economy: low-income households would spend their money on necessities in their communities, and this in turn would create jobs. In an economy fueled by consumer spending, putting more money into the pockets of low-income individuals and families has a multiplier effect, research shows. There are no negative labor market effects, only positive ones, in raising the minimum wage, research also shows. Thus raising the minimum wage is a tool for economic growth.
Illinois lawmakers are working on passing Senate Bill 1565, which would gradually raise the minimum wage in Illinois from $8.25 to $10.65 an hour over four years, with increases tied to inflation thereafter. Beyond ensuring that the minimum wage would maintain its value over time, the bill would reach countless women who remain unprotected. The bill provides for fewer limitations of the definition of “employee” so as to extend protections to excluded groups such as home care workers; for equality in wages for tipped workers; and for undoing restrictive language pertaining to temporary or irregular employees. And the bill would allow for workers to recoup twice the amount of their unpaid wages should employers break the law. The increase to $10.65 over four years would add $3.8 billion to the finances of directly affected families, who would in turn spend their increased earnings in their communities and grow the economy. The benefits of a higher minimum wage in Illinois are evident; working women and families cannot afford to be left behind.
Help women and families earn sufficient wages by raising the minimum wage in Illinois. Visit the Raise Illinois campaign’s website and sign a petition or tell your personal story. Most important, call or visit your legislators and urge them to support S.B. 1565. Act now by clicking here!
For more information, contact Wendy Pollack, director, Women’s Law and Policy Project, Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, at 312.368.3303.