My Mom Taught Me Why Minimum Wage is Women’s Issue

DALLAS (WOMENSENEWS)– Across the U.S., states are debating raising the minimum wage.

In Missouri, where I grew up, supporters are gathering petitions for ballot initiatives. One would increase it to $9 an hour from $7.65 and then a dollar a year until it is $15.

I know what this fight means for people because I grew up with one of the hardest workers, my mom. She worked at a uniform manufacturing plant in Missouri for 30 years. Most minimum wage workers today are women with similar struggles as my mom.

My mom woke up every morning at 4:30 a.m., made lunches, cooked a hot breakfast for the family (I’m talking bacon and eggs) and then drove an hour north of where we lived to work in an enclosed room with no ventilation, applying airplane glue to seams on rainwear.

In an effort to cover costs with the mileage she put on our vehicle, she picked up fellow workers along the route and they paid her to carpool.

She consistently received recognition plaques for her work attendance. She made it to work even when the roads were icy and schools were shut down. No one else dared drive 10 miles to work at 5:30 in the morning, let alone 45 miles.

She would return from work and start her second job of cooking and cleaning at home. She never received a living wage.

Piece Price System

Her company used the piece price system versus an hourly wage. For anyone unfamiliar with this payment system, here’s the Merriam-Webster definition: a convict labor system in which a private contractor furnishes the raw materials and pays the government a stipulated price for the work done on each piece or article produced.

Just change the term “convict” to “employee” and you get the gist.

My mom also worked a weekend job for a couple of years for additional income at another manufacturing company where she worked Friday and Saturday from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

If it weren’t for my father’s Air Force retirement check and the job he worked after, we would not have been able to afford our middle-class existence.

Through all of this, my mom was the happiest person. Now I know part of her happiness may have been from the airplane glue but those working conditions have caused multiple health issues in her later life. She battles daily with memory loss and pulmonary issues. None of the treatment for this was covered by her employer.

This same employer moved the work site and her job to Honduras in the early 1990s. No fanfare, no severance package, no retirement benefits.

In the U.S., 3.3 million workers earn the hourly minimum or less, according to PEW Research.

Around 77 percent of the workers at or below the federal minimum wage are white, half are women and they are more likely to live in the South, also according to PEW.

I was paid $2.01 per hour as a waitress 25 years ago in Missouri. Current federal minimum pay for the same position is $2.13. We’ve only increased the mandated minimum wage for tipped employees 12 cents in the last quarter century.

Around 55 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.

U.S. Ranks Almost Last

If we actually review the trend of wages and cost of living over the last two and half decades the U.S rankssecond to lowest, undercut only by China at $2.24 an hour.

Any person making minimum wage, in any state, working a 40-hour work week will have to pay more than 30 percent of their earnings for a fair-market-value, one-bedroom apartment, according to an analysis by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The fewest hours of work needed in the continental U.S. to cover the one-bedroom apartment is 49 hours in South Dakota. The highest is Maryland with 101 hours.

I know that some businesses, especially small ones, say they just can’t afford to increase minimum wage.

If that’s the case, perhaps the owners should look at better-revenue options, such as merging with other organizations or creating cooperative partnerships to reduce overhead. Whatever it takes any employer worthy of that name should divert enough funds to pay the minimum wage. If not, it’s probably operating so close to the edge of insolvency that another business-related expense, whatever it may be, will probably put the company over that line.

We need to start making federal changes to increase the minimum wage for women like my mom and other families who are struggling for the middle class dream.

Jeannie Rickey is the director of the Office of Admissions Processing at Texas Woman’s University and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project. Prior to that, she spent 21 years in the corporate world, in various finance and human resources roles.