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Jump Starting Real Wage Growth for Women: Increasing the Minimum Wage and Improving Overtime Laws

By Heidi Hartmann

In the context of a lost decade of wage growth for women, two recent proposals—to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour (including increasing the separate minimum wage for tipped workers), and to increase the threshold salary for overtime pay to $50,000 annually—can provide much needed relief to women.  

Increasing the minimum wage requires that the U.S. Congress pass a law. The current minimum wage of $7.25 was set in 2007and went into effect in 2009, but President Obama has already acted by executive order to require firms that hold contracts with the federal government to pay their workers a minimum of $10.10 per hour.  In contrast, increasing the salary threshold for receiving overtime pay, does not require congressional action, but does require action by the Secretary of Labor. President Obama has recently directed Secretary Perez to consider what can be done to ensure that workers are paid fairly for their overtime hours. The Fair Labor Standards Act sets the overtime pay premium at 50 percent more than the regular wage or salary, also known as “time and a half.” Currently the threshold annual salary is set at about $23,000 ($455 per week).  A worker classified as executive, administrative, or professional, who earns more than that annual salary does not currently need to be paid overtime.

Because women earn less than men on average, it is not surprising that women are the majority—64 percent—of those who earn the minimum wage and would thus benefit disproportionately from an increase in the minimum wage.  Economists expect that employers will also increase the pay of workers earning somewhat above the minimum, in keeping with past experience of minimum wage increases.  An EPI analysis shows that 15.3 million women—9.6 million directly and 5.7 million through the spillover effect— would receive a pay increase were the minimum wage to be raised to $10.10 per hour.  EPI also finds that nearly one-third of all working single mothers—or 2.3 million women—would receive a direct or indirect pay increase. Overall 55 percent of workers who would benefit from the increase are women.

A new report from the White House released earlier this morning points out that an even larger proportion of those affected by the tipped minimum wage—which has been stuck at $2.13 per hour since 1991—are women:  72 percent of tipped workers are women in occupations such as hair stylists, restaurant servers, and bartenders.  Employers need pay such workers only $2.13 per hour on the assumption that tips will raise their pay to the required $7.25 per hour.  According the White House report, about 10 percent of workers in these jobs say that does not happen.  The average wages of tipped workers are very low and their likelihood of being in poverty is high.  The White House analysis finds that about half of workers in tipped occupations would benefit from the proposal to increase the tipped minimum wage to $4.90 per hour by 2016. Of those whose wages would increase, 74 percent are women.

Likewise, women are the majority (54 percent) of all supervisory, managerial, and professional workers earning less than the proposed new overtime threshold of $984 per week, meaning that 5.3 million women would be newly covered by a requirement to be paid overtime when they work more than 40 hours per week. Currently, about 1 million of these women typically work more than 40 hours per week and would have to be paid 50 percent more for those additional hours beyond 40.   Furthermore, of all those high-level workers who earn above the new threshold and would not be required to be paid overtime, only 37 percent are women.  (Findings reference an unpublished analysis by EPI’s Heidi Shierholz.)

These two changes—the first by law, the second by regulation, and both administered by the Wages and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor—would help ensure that real wages rise for millions of women, not to mention many men, in the coming decade.  In its new report the White House estimates that the minimum wage change alone would close the wage gap between women and men by more than one percentage point.

Heidi Hartmann, PhD, is the founder and president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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