The Three Best and Worst Moments for Women’s Economic Status in 2013

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Analysis Law and Policy

The Three Best and Worst Moments for Women’s Economic Status in 2013

Sheila Bapat

Despite a tough year for U.S. women's overall economic status, we have good reason to feel optimistic that the tide may turn in 2014.

By some indicators, the economy began to rebound this year. Yet when it comes to women’s economic status, 2013 has been tough. The year revealed sluggishness among policymakers in improving women’s economic status, as well as some flat-out destructive behavior.

At the same time, there were some bright spots that give us hope for the year ahead.

What follows are three of the most detrimental developments for women workers this year, and three reasons why we have reason to feel optimistic about 2014.

–Bad: The Supreme Court eroded workers’ rights. This year the Supreme Court strengthened employers’ positions in harassment suits. The Court’s June decision in Vance v. Ball State University narrowed what it means to be a “supervisor,” absolving employers of liability beyond a very low negligence standard.

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The plaintiff in the case, Maetta Vance, alleged she experienced a racially hostile work environment at the university catering division where she worked as a server and part-time catering assistant. Vance is not alone in experiencing tough working conditions in the food service sector—wages and overall working conditions in food service jobs are notoriously bad, and some 50 percent of restaurant workers are women. (Published this year, Behind the Kitchen Door by Restaurant Opportunities Center Director Saru Jayaraman documents the significant hostility women and workers of color experience in food service.)

Vance is critical because it and other anti-worker Supreme Court decisions in recent years demonstrate how jurisprudence can erode workers’ rights over the long term. Actions by the Supreme Court, unless rectified by Congress, can bluntly limit workers’ legal recourse.

Vance also demonstrates why grassroots worker organizing is so important in cultivating ways for workers to advocate for themselves outside the legal system.

–Bad: Abortion restrictions weakened women’s economic status. States with strict abortion restrictions also have high numbers of women working in low-wage jobs. For instance, more than two-thirds of minimum wage workers in Texas, where an omnibus anti-abortion law passed this summer, are women.

As Rewire has repeatedly pointed out, attacks on reproductive freedom are also attacks on women’s economic security. Abortion restrictions have always disproportionately affected women of lower socioeconomic means—particularly given that women are disproportionately responsible for unpaid care work even while they are working in low-paying fields.

–Bad: Most states failed to raise the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage—the limit all states must abide by—is still far too low, at $7.25 per hour. Had the minimum wage kept pace with inflation over the last 40 years, it would currently hover around $10.58 per hour.

Meanwhile, a whopping 23 states still have not increased their minimum wages beyond the federal floor. Only a few states and cities have recently increased their minimum wage, with California’s rising to $10 per hour beginning in 2015.

Rhetoric against wage increases persists. And employers like Wal-Mart that have built their business model around the ability to pay low wages are among the most powerful corporations in the nation. At the same time, the fastest growing sectors of the economy pay minimum wage. These rapidly growing low-wage sectors, like home care, are stacked with women, many of whom are women of color. In other words, policymakers’ failure to increase wages is deeply tied to women’s economic status overall.

–Good: Several pieces of domestic worker legislation passed. In terms of policy victories, the domestic workers’ movement had a banner year. Domestic work—a sector dominated by women of color who work inside homes as nannies and caregivers—has long been excluded from labor protections. But in September, the Obama administration approved new Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulations that finally include some two million home care workers within minimum wage and overtime protections. The new regulations are historic, as they reverse nearly a century of exclusions that were built into the FLSA.

At the state level, California and Hawaii both enacted legislation extending overtime protections to domestic workers. Hawaii’s legislation also includes days of rest, weekly work limits, and protection from harassment. Given how systemically U.S. policy has excluded the role of domestic work in the broader economy, these key victories are evidence of major systemic shifts—and could be replicated across other sectors.

–Good: We saw the continued rise of worker centers. Worker centers—nonprofits that are not unions but that organize workers for improved conditions—have become the face of the modern U.S. labor movement. Today there are more than 200 worker centers in the United States.

This year we have seen how worker centers across many sectors—restaurant, retail, and construction—catalyze activism among many women and men who work in low-wage jobs. The Restaurant Opportunities Center, for example, has been instrumental in securing paid sick days in several cities as well as raising awareness about the particular stresses women in the restaurant industry face in securing care for their families. While traditional unions may be falling out of style, worker centers reveal a new, effective model for organizing.

–Good: There were rumblings about a federal minimum wage increase. In a December 4 speech, President Obama gave a powerful indication that he may devote what’s left of his second-term political capital to addressing facets of economic inequality. Obama expressed particular enthusiasm for raising the federal minimum wage, which we may see in 2014. “One study shows that more than half of Americans will experience poverty at some point during their adult lives. Think about that. This is not an isolated situation,” Obama said.

President Obama and a few Democratic Senators are now talking about raising the minimum wage to $9 per hour—a proposal many employers are likely to resist but one that has a better shot of of moving forward with the weight of the White House behind it.

Given the high number of women in low-wage jobs, raising the minimum wage is crucial for women’s economic status going forward.

While the year has been mixed, leading workers’ rights advocates are optimistic and, above all else, unrelenting in their mission. “My hope for 2014 is that all the low-wage workers that were in motion this year are able to win concrete improvements in their lives—better wages, better working conditions, and access to good jobs,” Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice, told Rewire. “And, I hope that all workers across various sectors of our economy—including  teachers, auto makers, truck drivers, communication workers, and nurses—have a voice on the job and a significant say in building an economy that works for all us.”

Haeyoung Yoon, deputy program director with the National Employment Law Project, expressed similar sentiment. “Women workers and their advocates were able to overcome prior setbacks and obstructions to achieve some big wins this year—for example, the California and Hawaii Domestic Workers Bills of Rights, and the home care companionship rules reforms,” Yoon said in an email. “Through smart and persistent advocacy, we believe that more major wins are possible in 2014.”