Friday, Oct. 30, was "Latina Equal Pay Day," and Sen. Barbara Mikulski took the opportunity to renew her call for Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bit of legislation that has languished on Capitol Hill for half a decade.
"It's outrageous that more than 50 years after the Equal Pay Act was signed into law, Latina women in America earn on average just 55 cents for every dollar a man earns," Mikulski, a senior member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension (HELP) Committee, said in a press release. "I've introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act to finish the job and stop wage discrimination from happening in the first place. This isn't just a women's issue, it's a family issue."
On the same day, the senator, who announced her retirement this year, introduced a bill that would undermine the pay prospects of thousands of Latina women.
The Save our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act of 2015, co-sponsored by Senators Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Dr. Bill Cassidy (R-La.),"focuses on substantive reforms aimed to help seasonal employers better navigate the H-2B temporary non-agricultural visa program," her office says. "The legislation would increase certainty for business, allowing seasonal employers to better prepare for fluctuations in demand."
H-2B workers—many of them from Latin America—are brought to the U.S. by employers to work as nannies, housekeepers, landscapers, and to pick crabmeat on Maryland's Eastern Shore, among other jobs. Mikulski's bill would erase regulations enacted last spring because of pressure from these workers themselves—Latina women, in many cases. The senator was explicit about her desire for lower wages in an Oct. 27 letter she and 15 other senators sent to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.
"We want to ensure that employers who rely on the H-2B program are not forced to pay artificially-inflated wages that drive up costs to the point of putting them out of business," she wrote.
The regulations Mikulski is trying to erase require employers to pay their workers' costs to get to the American job, and that they pay a "prevailing wage" to the foreign workers that is not lower than what they'd pay comparably skilled Americans.
The prevailing-wage regulations are the trouble, as the letter to Perez detailed red tape and delays the employers said they faced in bringing their foreign workers online. Under the April regulations, the Labor Department stopped accepting "a number of sources of wage information" that the employers favored. The letter demanded answers from Perez about how many wage determinations his department had processed since June and why the processing time had increased from five days to two months.
It is not clear if or how Perez responded. The bill introduced three days later would remove the Department of Labor's authority to oversee the H-2B program.
"To remove the Department of Labor from oversight of a temporary work program represents an attack on the labor rights of H-2B workers and, by extension, of the U.S. workers who work alongside them," Rachel Micah-Jones, founder and executive director of Baltimore-based Centro de los Derechos del Migrante Inc., which pushed for last spring's regulations, said. "If enacted, this bill would be devastating to migrant rights and the H-2B workers and communities CDM has worked with over the past decade."
A spokesman at Mikulski's office says the senator "has continued to hear from Eastern Shore businesses – including while on a stop on her Eastern Shore Jobs Tour in 2013 – on the importance of the H-2B program for the Shore economy."