As some employers in Maryland boost minimum hourly pay and momentum builds to increase the federal minimum wage, women have a lot to gain.
Female workers make up a large share of low-wage workers, so they stand to benefit from the proposed federal increase as well as from planned phased-in increases in Maryland, experts say. A 2019 state law will gradually raise Maryland’s minimum wage, now at $11.75, to $15 an hour by 2025 for companies with at least 15 employees. Meanwhile, the proposed Raise the Wage Act of 2021 would phase in a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour by 2025.
“Raising wages for low-wage workers has a disproportionate impact on women, who are more likely to be in low-paying jobs,” said David Cooper, senior economic analyst with Washington-based Economic Policy Institute.
Proponents say an increase in the $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage, the rate for more than a decade, is long overdue.
It would increase the earnings of 32 million workers, or 21% of the workforce, according to the institute. And it would broadly benefit women workers, the nonprofit think tank says, offering a pay raise to nearly 19 million women — roughly one in four female workers in the United States.
A full-time federal minimum wage worker today earns $15,080 annually. When adjusted for rising cost of living, those earnings are 18% less than what an employee earned at the time of the last increase, or $18,458 annually, EPI says.
Minimum wage increases disproportionately impact women because of a history of “occupational segregation,” Cooper said, “the fact that certain jobs were considered to be women’s work, and those jobs have been disproportionately undervalued by society.”
In Maryland, a handful of employers have recently announced minimum hourly pay increases ahead of the state mandate, saying they want to stay competitive or address pay inequity.
In early August, Morgan State University said it was immediately adopting a $15 minimum wage for hourly workers and planned to convert contract employees to full-time wages with benefits. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore’s largest private employer, announced in May it planned to boost the minimum wage at its university and health system to $15 an hour. Hopkins’ hike, for full-time, temporary, student and full-time contract workers, took effect July 1 for university employees and will start Jan. 1 for health system workers.
Morgan’s announcement said the university hoped to “address employee inequity in a profound and meaningful way at the state’s largest historically Black university.” Johns Hopkins officials said they raised minimum pay to enhance job opportunities and recognize front-line workers, especially in the lower-paid categories.
Baltimore-based Under Armour said in May it plans to boost minimum wages to $15 per hour for thousands of its hourly workers, a move it said is designed to keep the brand competitive in attracting in-demand store and warehouse workers.
In February, Baltimore’s two largest art museums, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum, said they would increase minimum wage to $15 an hour for their lowest-paid, full-time employees, including security guards.
And in January, LifeBridge Health, which includes Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, Northwest Hospital, Carroll Hospital and Grace Medical Center, raised the minimum wage for more than 1,100 patient care, environmental services and food service workers to $15 an hour.
Other large private employers, including Amazon, Costco, Target and Walmart, already had boosted base wages to $15 an hour.
Such increases “can make a real meaningful difference in how someone can afford food or back-to-school clothes for kids or medication, and it can ease some of the tough choices people have been faced with in the course of the pandemic,” said Julie Vogtman, director of job quality and senior counsel for the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center.
Currently, 30 states, including Maryland and Washington, D.C., have a minimum wage above the federal level. Increases are planned in 26 states plus Washington, including some that will increase wages to adjust for inflation.
As in Maryland, private employers around the country are reassessing their pay scales, either because they are forced to by local or state mandates or because of demand for workers, Cooper said. He said some aren’t waiting for mandates to take affect and are instituting raises in the hopes of attracting a better pool of applicants.
But worker advocates say more employers, including in Maryland, need to step up with higher minimums.
“We can’t wait for 2025 for the increase to $15 an hour,” said Cherrish Vick, secretary/treasurer of AFSCME Council 3, which represents some 30,000 state, county and municipal workers at a range of agencies and universities in Maryland. “For those workers making less than $15 an hour, it is not enough to support a family, and they have had to take second jobs, gig work or federal assistance.”
Many of those low-wage earners are single mothers who have been faced with increased costs in child care and other expenses, she said.
The union has been able to negotiate raises for members at Morgan State and is urging the rest of the University System of Maryland to follow in areas such as housekeeping, “which we know is predominantly women working in those positions and women of color,” Vick said.
Aisha Ruffin, a 39-year-old East Baltimore resident who works in housekeeping at the University of Maryland Baltimore’s Campus Center, has watched expenses such as health care rise. Still, her pay has remained at $13.75 an hour since 2019.
“It was a challenge coming every day” during the pandemic, Ruffin said. “We were out there putting our lives on the line.”
She supplemented her income with a second job at Amazon for a few months, but the work became too physically demanding. Now she competes with other workers at the university to take on overtime shifts, and a grown daughter helps pay family expenses from her job.
“We just try to figure it out,” she said of paying bills each month.
If the federal Raise the Wage Act passes, it would help women by doing away with a tiered minimum wage structure, proponents of the act say. Under the current structure, employers can pay restaurant servers and others who earn tips a minimum of $2.13 at the federal level or $3.63 an hour in Maryland. Maryland’s 2019 phased wage increase does not increase that tipped minimum rate.
Currently, if tips fail to bring weekly earnings to the regular minimum wage rate, an employer must pay workers the difference.
Proponents of “One Fair Wage,” or paying the same rate to both tipped and regular hourly workers, say the tipped minimum structure is often difficult to enforce and can shortchange workers. And tipped workers often are women, who make up 70% of the category.
The gender pay gap for women in states with a single minimum wage is 33% smaller than in states with the $2.13 tipped minimum wage, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Poverty rates are 30% lower.
When minimum wages go up, the pay gap between men and women narrows, experts said. States with higher minimum wages have smaller gender-based wage gaps, Vogtman said.
“Our society has devalued the work that women do, especially the work that Black and Latina women do,” Vogtman said. “Raising the minimum wage can have an impact on those gaps.”