Progressives cheered when California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed legislation last week raising the state’s minimum wage from $8 to $10, effective beginning in 2016. While it’s a step in the right direction — and one that the federal government should follow suit in — California’s wage hike only scratches the surface of what state and federal policymakers should be doing to improve conditions for low-wage workers. And given that women make up two-thirds of all minimum wage workers, there is a deeper need for policymakers to address the multiple economic challenges women face.
Raising the minimum wage by a small margin of $2 more per hour still puts many women and families at risk of living in poverty — especially in California, where the cost of living is among the highest in the nation. True, some argue that increasing the minimum wage can lower the number of available jobs for all workers. However this has not been the case in many low wage sectors such as care work and restaurant work — sectors that have been growing steadily in California and throughout the country. Instead, such minor increases to the minimum wage do not keep pace with inflation and can still make basic expenses a challenge for workers.
For example, a server in a California restaurant must in 2016 legally earn $20,800 per year plus tips, compared with the $16,640 minimum she must legally earn now. This is a small jump in earnings — and it assumes she can work 40 hour weeks year-round, without getting sick or needing time off to care for family. But working a standard 40 hour week on minimum wage is not even enough to afford rent in most places in California, or pretty much anywhere in the United States.
The San Francisco Bay Guardian noted earlier this month that on average, a household in California must earn $25.78 per hour to afford fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment. Yet a couple earning minimum wage would only bring the household to $16 per hour. A single mother earning minimum wage would have no chance at paying fair market rent in San Francisco. And rent continues to increase throughout California: average rent in Los Angeles County has jumped to $1,495. The cost of living in California and throughout the country is only going to be higher by 2016.
These facts point to the challenges of basic survivability when earning minimum wage. The minimum wage offers little hope for women and families to tackle long-term economic questions such as retirement saving. Women consistently have less money saved for retirement, leaving them vulnerable to poverty late in life. Women are also more likely to require time off to have children or care for family members. And the long-term consequences of poverty on children’s development is perhaps the most problematic and enduring impact of low wages.
Thus, a $2 minimum wage hike is just not enough. Ensuring economic sustainability — truly, the ability to survive — for women and families requires a higher minimum wage increase, along with a holistic set of policies that correct the many ways the economy causes women and families to struggle.
And in California, there are a few important economic policies that are doing just that.
For example, California’s minimum wage does not vary among sectors. One often forgotten or unknown fact about the minimum wage is that allows tipped workers, such as restaurant workers, to legally be paid a meager $2.13 per hour with the assumption that tips can bring them up to the legal federal minimum of $7.50 per hour. However in California, there is no such disparity — the minimum wage applies to all workers, helping avoid deeper gulfs in earnings among the lowest-paying sectors. This sets California apart, as most states, consistent with federal law, allow a lower wage for tipped workers.
Also last week, Gov. Brown signed into law California’s domestic workers’ bill of rights, ensuring overtime pay for the state’s 200,000 mostly immigrant women who work as nannies, housekeepers and caregivers who have historically been excluded from overtime protections. This makes California only the third state in the nation to enact such a policy. (Earlier this month, the White House also approved regulations extending the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to home care workers throughout the country.) Given that domestic work is a fast growing sector, dominated by women, but also one of the lowest paid, policy change for this sector is particularly important.
Another critical policy that has for years put California far ahead of the national curve in terms of family economic security is its paid family leave program. Enacted eleven years ago, California’s program supports workers who leave the private sector to have children or care for family members. The program has been found to improve families’ economic security overall, enabling women to increase their working hours after returning from leave, “with a concomitant increase in earnings.” California is one of just three states with paid family leave.
It goes without saying, there are critical areas in which California must improve, such as accessibility of food stamps and affordable housing, as well as the overall disparity in wealth. But relative to the rest of the nation, several California policies are a step in the right direction.
So while having the highest minimum wage in the country is good, it isn’t what makes California special. Instead, what sets California apart is that it has enacted a range of policies that can help ensure women and families have a better shot of avoiding poverty and achieving economic stability.
Bapat is an attorney and writer covering economic and gender justice. Her work has appeared in RH Reality Check, Salon, TruthOut, Jacobin and other publications.