Black women still earn less for the same work. No matter the job

Licensed Nurse Nadine Rattray made less money than men and white women in her previous job. She now works in a union job where equal pay is guaranteed.
Licensed Nurse Nadine Rattray made less money than men and white women in her previous job. She now works in a union job where equal pay is guaranteed.

Nadine Rattray started her new job at a Miami rehab facility with confidence. She had worked in a hospital for five years previously, had become licensed as a practical nurse, and was able to negotiate her salary up to $19 an hour from $18. So when she found out her Hispanic male colleagues with less experience were making $22 an hour, she said that she responded in shock. “Oh my God, you’re getting more than me!”

Her experience wasn’t uncommon. On average, black women are paid significantly less than men overall and white women for the same jobs, according to a July report by the not-for-profit Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

Women typically earn 80 cents for every dollar a man makes for the same job. For black women, that number slips to 67 cents relative to white men, according to the report, despite education, years of experience and location.

In Florida, the situation is exacerbated by the predominance of non-union private companies that use salary history as a basis rather than ability or performance.

“When the floor is allowed to be this low, when black women are allowed to be paid this little, it impacts everyone above them,” said Janelle Jones, economic analyst for the Economic Policy Institute. When a person making the lowest salary in the company gets a wage increase, other salaries also often see a bump, she said.

“You may not care about the people and their standard of living, but you may care that you will actually get an increase,” Jones said.

The overall economy also takes a hit. The wage gap, for instance, means black women have less money to care for their families and pay for education for themselves and their children.

William Spriggs, chief economist for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, said that the wage discrimination faced by women in general is even worse for black women. Because of social patterns and bias, they often find themselves left out of the networks used to find about jobs in the first place, he said.

“Job networks are vital to the way labor markets work, but because those are segregated, they don’t share the same information or get the same level of referrals that they would get if networks were integrated.”

Adding to the problem: Black women face higher unemployment than women in general or white men. While the statewide unemployment rate in 2016 was 4.3 percent for both white men and women, the jobless rate for black women was 7.4 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Miami-Dade, the unemployment rate for all blacks in 2015 was 13.2 percent — well above the general population joblessness of 6.6 percent. In Broward, the black unemployment rate was 12.1 percent, versus 7.8 percent.

“What you fear if you’re black is, ‘I face a higher unemployment rate and because I face a higher unemployment rate, if I become unemployed I’ll be unemployed longer,’ ” Spriggs said. As a result, black women are less likely to negotiate for higher salaries.

Even as black women move up the job ladder within companies, fair wages can continue to be an issue, according to the Economic Policy Institute report. While pay for maids, for instance, tend to be relatively equal ($11.16 per hour for black women, $11.18 for white women and $12.60 for white men), pay for social workers averages at $22.81 for black women, $24.52 for white women and $27.09 for white men. Manager salaries skews from $28.36 per hour for black women, $32.70 for white women and $41.14 for white men.

Nurse Rattray said that when she received a promotion at the rehab facility, she was still paid $2 less per hour than the man who previously held the same position.

Pay disparity can apply to executive positions, as well.

Despite having a doctorate degree and more than eight years of professional experience, Rosalind Osgood said she was offered $10,000 less than her predecessor when she was hired as president and CEO of a Broward community development corporation 17 years ago.

“It’s challenging, because when you are undervalued and you’re being paid less, it’s a form of rejection,” she said.

Being underpaid means black women also struggle with educational expenses for their children and themselves. According to the American Association of University Women, black women borrow more for undergraduate education than women of other ethnicities, and incur greater debt. According to the association’s report, Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans, while white women typically graduated with a bachelors degree with just over $20,000 in loans, black women carried more than $29,000 in debt. And 34 percent of black women graduated with more than $40,000 in student debt, compared with 16 percent of Hispanic women and 10 percent of white women. Both black and white women incurred slightly more in loans than men in either group.

For Osgood, both of her advanced degrees — a master of divinity, required for her role as an itinerant preacher, and doctorate in public administration — were achieved with student loans.

Despite the quantity and level of degrees, some black women find it impossible to move up the career ladder when competing with white applicants. Annette Newman, a civil rights lawyer with a master’s in business administration, decided to open her own law firm in Fort Lauderdale after being turned down for a position as a regional human resources manager in the retail firm where she worked for 17 years.

“I know people who were selected; one was a white female and a district manager who never worked in human resources before and three were white males from outside of the company, one had never worked in HR before, and none of them had as many degrees as I had,” Newman said. “I had all outstanding performing reviews and was highly rated as ‘above performance expectation.’’’

One possible solution for women facing discrimination at work is to join a union. That’s what nurse Rattray did after she “learned the big impact unions play on the lives of the women, especially the minorities who can’t fight or speak up for themselves.”

Now that she has a job covered by a contract negotiated by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, she said she no longer worries about pay equity or benefits.

But in Florida, only about 7 percent of all workers are represented by unions, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most of those are in government jobs.

While black women can also seek legal assistance, Jones with the Economic Policy Institute says that the wage gap needs to be rectified at the governmental level.

Black women are often faulted for the wage gap, but it “isn’t something that black women individually can fix. ... They have been doing the things that society has told them to do, [such as] working long hours and getting education, and that’s not closing the gap with white men,” Jones said.

“These are institutional factors and it’s really going to be institutional change in public policy that makes the difference.”

In Florida, that appears to be a long shot, at least for now. Repeated attempts to pass legislation prohibiting discriminatory practices have failed to pass the legislature. The most recent, by state Rep. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, was indefinitely postponed and withdrawn from consideration in May.

What to do

If you experience wage discrimination, these are some actions you can take:

▪ Join a workers union if available: South Florida’s biggest unions are South Florida AFL-CIO (305-883-0450) and AFSCME Florida, Miami office: (305-651-6617).

▪ Seek legal action: Donna Ballman, an employee advocacy lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, wrote via an email:

“In Florida, both the Florida Civil Rights Act and Title VII (the federal anti-discrimination law) apply. [In Florida] Women have 300 days from the date of discrimination to file with EEOC and one year to file with the Florida Commission on Human Relations. If you file with one you are automatically filed with both. Filing is a prerequisite to filing a discrimination suit under these statutes.

“Before taking legal action, it might be best to bring it up with HR first. I suggest complaining in writing so you have proof you made a protected complaint. If they won’t resolve it or they retaliate, I suggest talking to an employee-side employment lawyer about your rights.”