#MeToo and Women's Economic Empowerment

(Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Hotel workers, represented by Unite Here Local 1, picket outside the Palmer House Hilton on September 7, 2018, in Chicago. This summer, the union successfully organized for a city ordinance requiring hotels to provide housekeepers with panic buttons that they can press if they are sexually harassed or assaulted by guests.

The women who have come forward to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault as part of the #MeToo movement are courageous and inspiring. They have chosen to pursue justice by publicly describing their traumatic experiences, knowing full well the scorn and baseless attacks on their character that they would face for doing so. Their bravery has resulted in a groundbreaking cultural shift in the way we talk about and address sexual abuse.

Yet it is also true that many of the most high-profile women in the #MeToo movement have a host of advantages in their lives. They include wealthy white women, with white-collar professional jobs or influential careers in entertainment, academia, or politics. As many of these women, despite these advantages, are still not taken seriously by large swaths of the American public, we should be gravely concerned about how women in marginalized communities fare when it comes to the workplace harassment and sexual assaults that they experience.

Low-income women, particularly women of color, are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment as a direct consequence of exploitative conditions at low-wage jobs. Women are significantly more likely than men to be low-wage workers; they comprise more than 60 percent of minimum-wage workers. According to analysis by the Center for American Progress, the industries with the highest numbers of sexual harassment charges tend to employ low-wage women and women of color in service-sector jobs (hotels, food services, retail trade).

Women in low-wage service-sector jobs face tremendous power differentials between themselves and their employers or customers, and they fear being easily replaced if they call attention to abuse. For poor women (especially poor mothers) relying on low-wage work for survival, leaving jobs where they face harassment is often not an option. Many employers and customers are well aware of these power dynamics and proceed to exploit them, which is why two-thirds of women in the fast-food industry, 58 percent of hotel workers, and many other low-wage women workers have experienced sexual harassment at work. The risks are even greater for women of color, who experience especially high rates of sexual harassment at work and higher rates of sexual violence more broadly.

In other words, economic exploitation and sexual harassment are clearly interconnected and compounding forces affecting low-wage women workers. What’s needed is a set of policies both to empower those women and to reduce the pay and power inequities they face. For example:

It has long been recognized that raising minimum wages is particularly helpful to low-wage women workers. Research by minimum-wage scholar David Cooper on the impact of a gradual increase in the federal wage floor to $15 finds that “the majority of workers affected by raising the minimum wage (55.6 percent) are women.” Cooper estimates that about 13 million low-wage working women would get a direct boost from the higher wage floor, with another ten million indirectly affected as a result of the well-documented “spillover” effects from higher minimums. Cooper also finds that about 45 percent of working single mothers would get a raise from this increase in the minimum.

But there’s another aspect of minimum-wage law that is particularly germane to the intersection of wage policy and sexual harassment: the tipped minimum wage. Under federal law, tipped employers can be paid a subminimum wage, so long as their tips bring them up to at least the minimum. But the policy is hard to enforce, as economist Heidi Shierholz has noted. The majority of full-service restaurants investigated between 2009 and 2015 were violating wage and hour laws, with the failure to adequately compensate tipped workers one of the most common violations.

There’s evidence a subminimum wage for tipped workers leads to sexual harassment in a way that paying workers one fair wage does not. A recent New York Times feature about harassment of tipped workers told of how a waitress was slipped a note by the husband of the family she was serving to call him “any evening after 9 [when his wife] goes to bed.” The waitress recalled wanting “so bad to go tell his wife, but he was the one filling out the credit card slip. I needed the $20 tip.”

The obvious solution is to do what a majority of D.C. voters recently voted for: Just pay tipped workers the full minimum wage. Outrageously, and more in the mode of a banana republic than a representative democracy, the D.C. City Council, acting on the behest of the restaurant industry, voted to repeal the will of the voters.

Another wage policy to help low-income working women, especially working mothers, is the Earned Income Tax Credit, a wage-subsidy for low-income working parents (there’s also a small EITC for adults without children). Most households that get the EITC—62 percent—have a working woman in them, many of whom are single moms. In 2016, the EITC lifted more than one million women out of poverty.

Much like the waitress noted above, a low-wage woman worker facing sexual harassment or abuse typically has little recourse on the job. If she belongs to a union, however, she has institutional backup to tap when needed. Unions can provide their female members with mechanisms to report and seek recourse for sexual harassment, as, according to joint analysis by the National Women’s Law Center and the ALF-CIO, “collective bargaining agreements negotiated by workers and their unions with employers typically contain language calling for dignity and respect at work and often include additional anti-discrimination language. These contractual provisions are enforced through a grievance and arbitration process at the worksite—a process typically far quicker and less expensive than outside legal proceedings.” A number of unions have served as strong political champions for laws combating sexual harassment in the workplace. For example, a hotel workers’ union in Chicago successfully organized for a city ordinance (through the union’s “Hands Off Pants On” campaign—now there’s a simple, clear slogan!) requiring hotels to provide housekeepers with panic buttons that they can press if they are sexually harassed or assaulted by guests.

Of course, economic empowerment, gender wage equality, and institutionalized protections against abuse and harassment are but one dimension of the necessary response to the revelations of the #MeToo movement. But every policy we’ve named is already in place, and while we do not expect the current federal government to advance them anytime soon, sub-national governments are already doing so. Twenty-nine states (plus D.C.) have higher minimum wages than the federal government, and the same number of states have implemented state-level EITC programs that “add on” to the federal program. Progress is also being made at the local level, with many cities passing even higher minimum wages and unions organizing for better working conditions in places like Boston, Detroit, and Milwaukee. Progressives should watch and track the impact of these policies, with a goal of learning what works best so that we can scale up the most effective programs when we have the power to do so.

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