Opinion: As Labor Day approaches, know your rights at work, says St. Lawrence AAUW
Friday, August 30, 2013 - 5:02 pm


St. Lawrence County Branch, American Association of University Women

With Labor Day upon us, the employment news is anything but good in the nation, in New York State or here at home in St. Lawrence County.

The Fiscal Policy Institute reported the current economic "recovery" here in New York is the weakest on record since the Great Depression of the 1930's.

And outside of New York City, Long Island and Ithaca, the rest of the state shows very poor job creation rates.

And what new jobs there are are concentrated in the worst paying segments of the economy like restaurants and retail, where the benefits are few and minimum wage the norm for even full time work.

Thousands of fast-food workers in 60 cities from coast to coast just walked off their jobs on Aug. 29 in a nationwide protest of low wages.

The strikers are seeking raises to $15 an hour, paid sick leave and the right to unionize America's second-biggest employer, the restaurant industry. An industry predicting its 2013 profits will "reach a record high of $660.5 billion."

These are not disgruntled teenagers; these are family breadwinners who are among the working poor in this country. These low-wage, fast-food or discount-retail jobs were not head-of-household jobs 40 years ago, yet now the average low-wage worker provides forty-six per cent of their family's income with that paycheck.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, women make up 56 percent of minimum wage workers, but even when these women work full time - as does the majority of the working poor - their income remains below the federal poverty line.

AAUW has joined with 40 other organizations to urge members of Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to a fair, livable standard.

The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 would increase the minimum wage incrementally over the next three years from the current $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour. And even though state minimum wages were raised in New York and Connecticut this year, the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA) cut deals with state lawmakers that left food servers and bartenders without increases.

The federal minimum cash wage for tipped workers is $2.13 per hour. Women make up nearly two-thirds of workers in tipped occupations like restaurant servers and bartenders. Nearly 2.4 million women 16 and older were paid minimum wage or less in 2011.

They provided care for children and frail elders, cleaned homes and offices, and waited tables. Women of color are disproportionately represented among female minimum wage workers.

And these women all struggle to provide for themselves and their families on these dismal wages. In fact, the number of Americans who struggle with joblessness and poverty throughout their lifetime is dangerously high.

At some point in their lives, four out of 5 U.S. adults will struggle with joblessness, near poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, according to a recent report.

This likelihood of this struggle goes up over times, as it does for low education workers or minorities. Ten years ago, Mark Rank and Thomas Hirschl looked at Institute for Social Research data from 2001 that indicated that at age 25, around 6 percent of people had experienced poverty, but by age 75, 51 percent had experienced at least one year of poverty.

Since the economic downturn in 2008, those numbers have only gotten worse. In addition to lobbying Congress to address the low minimum wage, AAUW has created a worker's right resource.

The new Know Your Rights at Work webpage outlines the laws that exist to protect employees from discrimination and harassment. Those rights are protected by federal, state, and local laws, as well as by common law, for discriminatory or illegal behavior by their employers.

The website created by AAUW's Legal Advocacy Fund gives workers up-to-date content and all the latest legal developments straight from the experts, to ensure workers are getting the best information on workplace protection.

To learn more, go to http://www.aauw.org/what-we-do/legal-resources/know-your-rights-at-work/.

The need is great. In a recent survey, nearly 30 percent of women reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace, and 31 percent said they think they'd be paid more if they were male. Workers, especially women, are struggling in this economy, and discrimination and ill-treatment only make things worse, depriving women of much-needed opportunities.

AAUW's LAF has a long history of fighting sex discrimination in the workplace. The fund provides financial and nonfinancial support for lawsuits, and distributes nationally-recognized education and prevention programs that fight discrimination in communities nationwide.

The Know Your Rights at Work webpage covers workplace laws, the Family and Medical Leave Act, equal pay, pregnancy discrimination, and workplace sexual harassment The pay gap is especially pernicious. Women experience a pay gap all the way through their careers. Men fresh out of college in the same majors and jobs make more than their female counterparts.

No matter how many advanced degrees a woman obtains, men with the same credentials will still be paid more. The pay gap continues to widen as women advance in their careers. And even women who make it to the very top of the ladder are paid less than other male executives. Membership in the St. Lawrence County Branch, founded in 1927, is open to anyone who supports the mission of AAUW: Advancing equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research.

AAUW, with its nationwide network of more than 150,000 members and supporters, more than 1,000 branches conducting programs in communities across the country, and 869 college and university partners (including all four local collages), has been a leading advocate for equity and education for women and their families since 1881. For more information about AAUW in St. Lawrence County, contact President Jennifer Ball at 268- 4208 or [email protected] or Public Policy Chair Kathleen Stein at 386-3812, [email protected], or visit the branch website, http://www.northnet.org/stlawrenceaauw/index.html.