Evelyn Coke worked for more than 20 years in Queens, New York caring for elderly men and women in their homes. Every day she bathed, dressed and fed them. She cooked and cleaned their homes. Ms. Coke, who is African American, often worked more than 70 hours a week at $7 per hour. And during all those years she never received overtime pay. She knew this wasn’t right. So she challenged her unfair pay all the way to the Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled in 2007 that she was not entitled to overtime.
Ms. Coke’s story is not an anomaly. Domestic workers are still treated unequally under the law and their pay does not match their important role. The imbalance between the care we expect and what we pay for it is a part of slavery’s entrenched imprint on our labor laws. Many of the labor protections of the New Deal era of the 1930s — legislation initiated by President Roosevelt to pull the country out of the Great Depression — did not extend to domestic workers or agricultural workers, most of whom were black at the time. Recently, the Department of Labor released a new rule that would give millions of homecare workers federal wage and overtime protections. Legal challenges are unfortunately slowing down the implementation of this rule.
It cannot come soon enough.
Today is Equal Pay Day for Black women — the day when the earnings of Black women finally catch up to men’s from the previous year. It recognizes that Black women working full time, year round typically make just 64 cents for every dollar white men make. Put another way, Black women have to work 19 months to make what white men do in a single year. And this means that over the course of a 40-year career, Black women will typically lose nearly $776,000 to the wage gap. It will typically take a Black woman almost 63 years to make what a white man makes in 40 years.
The wage gap Black women face is usually invisible. When the wages of all men and all women are compared, women typically are paid 22 percent less than men. But hidden in the overall data are the synergistic effects of race and gender. All women experience a stark wage gap, but for black women this gap is a deep ditch that drives poverty.
It’s time to shine a light on the wage gap for Black women.
Let’s start telling the equal pay stories of Black women. Through #BlackLivesMatter, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometti made longstanding, invisible problems visible. Let’s make the longstanding problems that have caused Black women to earn less than two-thirds of what White men make visible to all. Most people know there is a gender wage gap. But relatively few know that this gap is a gulf for Black women.
I began with Evelyn Coke. She died in 2009 after working for decades as a homecare worker. I will add my grandmother, Blanche Goings, who worked tirelessly in homes, as a nursing assistant and a teaching assistant in Detroit. Her work helped to support five children, including my mother. Neither woman ever saw the equal pay that matched the dignity of their work. It’s time to change that.