Jump Starting Real Wage Growth for Women: Increasing the Minimum Wage and Improving Overtime Laws

By Heidi Hartmann

In the context of a lost decade of wage growth for women, two recent proposals—to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour (including increasing the separate minimum wage for tipped workers), and to increase the threshold salary for overtime pay to $50,000 annually—can provide much needed relief to women.

Increasing the minimum wage requires that the U.S. Congress pass a law. The current minimum wage of $7.25 was set in 2007and went into effect in 2009, but President Obama has already acted by executive order to require firms that hold contracts with the federal government to pay their workers a minimum of $10.10 per hour.  In contrast, increasing the salary threshold for receiving overtime pay, does not require congressional action, but does require action by the Secretary of Labor. President Obama has recently directed Secretary Perez to consider what can be done to ensure that workers are paid fairly for their overtime hours. The Fair Labor Standards Act sets the overtime pay premium at 50 percent more than the regular wage or salary, also known as “time and a half.” Currently the threshold annual salary is set at about $23,000 ($455 per week).  A worker classified as executive, administrative, or professional, who earns more than that annual salary does not currently need to be paid overtime.

Because women earn less than men on average, it is not surprising that women are the majority—64 percent—of those who earn the minimum wage and would thus benefit disproportionately from an increase in the minimum wage.  Economists expect that employers will also increase the pay of workers earning somewhat above the minimum, in keeping with past experience of minimum wage increases.  An EPI analysis shows that 15.3 million women—9.6 million directly and 5.7 million through the spillover effect— would receive a pay increase were the minimum wage to be raised to $10.10 per hour.  EPI also finds that nearly one-third of all working single mothers—or 2.3 million women—would receive a direct or indirect pay increase. Overall 55 percent of workers who would benefit from the increase are women.

A new report from the White House released earlier this morning points out that an even larger proportion of those affected by the tipped minimum wage—which has been stuck at $2.13 per hour since 1991—are women:  72 percent of tipped workers are women in occupations such as hair stylists, restaurant servers, and bartenders.  Employers need pay such workers only $2.13 per hour on the assumption that tips will raise their pay to the required $7.25 per hour.  According the White House report, about 10 percent of workers in these jobs say that does not happen.  The average wages of tipped workers are very low and their likelihood of being in poverty is high.  The White House analysis finds that about half of workers in tipped occupations would benefit from the proposal to increase the tipped minimum wage to $4.90 per hour by 2016. Of those whose wages would increase, 74 percent are women.

Likewise, women are the majority (54 percent) of all supervisory, managerial, and professional workers earning less than the proposed new overtime threshold of $984 per week, meaning that 5.3 million women would be newly covered by a requirement to be paid overtime when they work more than 40 hours per week. Currently, about 1 million of these women typically work more than 40 hours per week and would have to be paid 50 percent more for those additional hours beyond 40.   Furthermore, of all those high-level workers who earn above the new threshold and would not be required to be paid overtime, only 37 percent are women.  (Findings reference an unpublished analysis by EPI’s Heidi Shierholz.)

These two changes—the first by law, the second by regulation, and both administered by the Wages and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor—would help ensure that real wages rise for millions of women, not to mention many men, in the coming decade.  In its new report the White House estimates that the minimum wage change alone would close the wage gap between women and men by more than one percentage point.

Heidi Hartmann, PhD, is the founder and president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org

The Lost Decade of Wage Growth for Women

by Heidi Hartmann

Twice a year, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) updates its fact sheet, “The Gender Wage Gap,” to report the latest data as they become available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau.  This year, we noticed something new when we added the latest figure for median weekly earnings for men and women who work full-time—a virtual standstill in women’s real wages for the past ten years. This was true when looking at trends in both usual weekly earnings and annual earnings for those who work full-time, year-round.

For several decades, as new Fed chair Janet Yellen notes, women have been the success story in the economy. Women increasingly pursued higher education, eventually surpassing men in college graduation rates. Women also joined the labor force in larger numbers, worked more throughout their lives, and entered a variety of occupations that had been formerly virtually closed to them, becoming  bus drivers, mail carriers, fire fighters, police officers, bankers, lawyers, doctors, and many others.

These gains in education and work experience (what economists call human capital) contributed to narrowing the wage gap, and the equal opportunity legislation of the 1960s and 1970s helped too. The gender wage gap closed from 40 percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 2012 (in terms of annual earnings). Women’s real earnings—meaning wages adjusted for inflation—grew as well, from $22,418 in 1960 to $28,496 in 1970, $30,136 in 1980, $34,247 in 1990, $37,146 in 2000, and $38,345 in 2012.

In contrast, men’s real earnings have not grown since about 1975, although men’s real earnings have remained higher than women’s. In that year, men’s earnings were $50,093 (in 2013 dollars) and in 2012, they were $50,122.  In other words, men have had nearly four decades of stagnant wages.  Explanations for this are many, but the most persuasive in my view is that, for a variety of reasons stemming from institutional and policy changes, the productivity gains that the U.S. economy has enjoyed have simply not been passed on to workers (except those at the very top). Ordinarily, we economists expect workers’ wages to grow along with GDP growth and productivity growth (more output per hour worked).   In the modern economy, men’s real wages have simply failed to thrive.

Women’s real earnings, however, did grow, until about 2002 when they too caught “real wages failure to thrive” disease. What caused this stagnation for women? Economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn from Cornell University have described women’s success in the labor market as “swimming upstream.” Women were able, for several decades, to overcome the forces that have been generating increased economic inequality in America. By increasing their human capital and gaining access to new, better paid  occupations, firms, and industries, women were able to achieve a significant degree of equality with men, despite trends pushing the top and the bottom further apart.

Now it seems as if the current is finally overpowering women, making it increasingly difficult for them to swim upstream. This is not to say that discrimination is any worse than it has been in the past, but progress in reducing discrimination is no longer being made.  As IWPR’s fact sheet shows, women’s annual earnings in 2012 are slightly less than they were in 2001, at $38,438.  Women’s weekly earnings at $706 in 2013 are about the same as they were in 2004, at $707.

What is to be done?  I believe only a major policy shift, similar to what occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, with the Equal Pay Act (1963), the Civil Rights Act (1964), and Title IX (1972), will be able to get women’s wages back on track.  The changes needed fall into four areas:  1) better enforcement of existing equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws and new legislation to fill the gaps in current law; 2) policies that help bring up the bottom of the labor market, which can jump start real wage growth; 3) policies that address the family needs of workers; and 4) policies that address the power of women.

Starting with the last first, encouraging collective bargaining for workers, encouraging women to take leadership positions in labor unions, encouraging women to run for public office (public funding for elections would help!), and ensuring that more women serve on corporate boards of directors would all increase women’s power.  Policies that address such work-family issues as child care and paid family leave are sorely lacking in the United States, compared with other wealthy nations, and it’s high time we caught up—these policies are likely to increase women’s wages in the long run as they help equalize caregiving between women and men and lead women to invest more in their careers.  Policies that especially bring up the bottom of the labor market have also fallen behind their historic norms:  the minimum wage in real dollars is below where it was in the 1960s.  The current proposal to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and raise the minimum wage for tipped workers to $4.90 per hour (it has been stuck at $2.13 per hour since 1991) is estimated by the White House to narrow the gender wage gap by more than one percentage point. The Obama Administration is also working on increasing the likelihood that those supervisory workers who earn  modest salaries (for example, less than $50,000 per year, 54 percent of whom are women) will be paid  time and a half for their hours worked beyond 40 per week.  Stronger enforcement of the EEO laws we have goes without saying, so that women continue to be able to enter jobs that are currently done mostly by men (men’s jobs).  We could also strengthen the law by making it illegal for employers to retaliate against workers who share pay information and requiring employers to pay comparable men’s and women’s jobs equally.

Heidi Hartmann, PhD, is founder and president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org

Putting People First: The Yellen Era Begins at the Fed

by Heidi Hartmann

IWPR President Heidi Hartmann (right) with IMF Managing Director Christine LaGarde and Fed Chair Janet Yellen at Chair Yellen's ceremonial swearing in ceremony in Washington, DC on March 5, 2014.
IWPR President Heidi Hartmann (right) with IMF Managing Director Christine LaGarde (left) and Fed Chair Janet Yellen (center) at Chair Yellen’s ceremonial swearing in ceremony in Washington, DC on March 5, 2014.

Last week, at her ceremonial swearing in at the imposing atrium of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, DC, Janet Yellen gave a remarkable speech.  Short—less than 3 pages double-spaced—it nevertheless conveyed what Chair Yellen brings to the table.

Her remarks began with a few standard points about the mission of the Federal Reserve. In speaking of her own and the Fed’s mission, she promised “to help restore the health of the economy and promote a strong and stable financial system.”  She noted that substantial progress had been made in the past several years, but that much remained to be done to achieve the twin goals of the Federal Reserve—full employment and stable prices. She noted that “the economy continues to operate considerably short of these objectives.”

She moved on to mention the steps the Board has taken to strengthen financial regulation and the steps it will take to implement the Dodd- Frank Act.  She promised to continue former Chairman Bernanke’s movement toward making the Federal Reserve more transparent and accountable through further improving communication with the public.  These remarks echo those by Bernanke in 2010, when he emphasized the need for stronger regulation of the banking system to prevent another crisis and the role of improved communication with the public in restoring the public’s faith in the banking system.

But there were also several parts of the speech that revealed something about where her passions lie and how the Yellen era at the Fed is likely to differ from previous tenures.

Chair Yellen described the oath of office that she had just taken as “a public promise to carry out [her] duties guided by no interest other than the public interest.”

Then, she devoted the second-longest paragraph in her speech to extolling the skills and dedication of the “men and women” on the Fed’s staff, emphasizing their integrity, tireless work, creativity, and perseverance.

Finally, in the climax of her speech she brought home the importance of the Fed’s work to the average American, closing with this promise and an evocative description of what achieving that promise means to an unemployed worker:

“I promise to never forget the individual lives, experiences and challenges that lie behind the statistics we use to gauge the health of the economy. The unemployment rate represents millions of individuals who are eager to work but struggling to provide for themselves and their families.  When we make progress toward our goals, each job that is created lifts this burden for someone who is better equipped to be a good parent, to build a stronger community, and to contribute to a more prosperous nation.”

For me, an economist who has dedicated my life to advancing the status of women, experiencing first-hand Janet Yellen’s elevation to this leadership position—making her arguably the most powerful woman in the world—was deeply moving.

Indeed, the swearing-in ceremony—in which her oath and speech were joyfully acknowledged by cheers and applause from the gathered guests and the many staff members crowding every inch of the Fed’s atrium, balcony and sweeping stairways—epitomized the rationale for the struggle to win such high for places for women.  They often bring a different perspective to leadership, based on a lifetime of difference.  A difference that tends to put people first.

Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D., is an economist and president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org