Equal and Fair Pay Is Everyone’s Issue

Ann Twomey.

Ann Twomey.

‘A recreational aide I know in one nursing home has been working with elderly patients for 10 years, but still makes only $13 an hour. Her colleague, a nursing assistant for 23 years is paid $16.50 an hour. With starting pay of $10.90, aides at this very typical nursing home will take almost 15 years to get to a $15 an hour wage.’

We rely on home health aides and nursing assistants to care for our elderly in nursing homes and to visit home bound patients. The low wages they are paid unfortunately reflects our misplaced priorities. They are also mostly women, earning the lowest pay in the healthcare industry, with average hourly wages ranging from just below $11 an hour for home health aides and under $13 for nursing assistants.

That’s why the fact that the NJ legislature is making wage discrimination, raising the minimum wage, and earned sick leave a priority is so important.

NJ Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto also announced their commitment to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, despite an anticipated veto by Governor Christie. Jersey City Mayor Fulop has already issued an executive order establishing a $15 minimum wage for city workers, and other NJ cities are following suit. Each of these policies will help correct the gender and racial wage gaps and narrow the growing income inequality in New Jersey and across our country.

A $15 an hour minimum wage would benefit more than 600,000 New Jerseyans and would be especially meaningful to households headed by women, and to African American and Latino families. Women working full-time year-round still make only 80 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. In communities of color, the wage gap is even more egregious, with African American women paid only 64% and Latinas only 59% of what white men are paid.

Hospitals, nursing homes and home care agencies, including those in NJ, share responsibility for these wage disparities. While some healthcare professions provide a path to a middle-class life, many offer wages that fall well below a living wage for families.

Pay disparities take an even higher toll on working mothers, who make 70 cents for every dollar working fathers make, according to the National Women’s Law Center. The lack of benefits in many low-wage jobs deepens the financial struggle and juggle between work and family. More than 1 million NJ workers have no paid sick days, and the low-income jobs women work in are the least likely to offer paid sick leave. When a working mother or a family member gets sick, the squeeze on her family’s income gets tighter. In fact, the NJ Time to Care coalition points out that working women are twice as likely as men to experience a job loss due to caring for a family member.

I was listening recently to a nurse talk about the pressures of caring for an elderly parent and helping out with her grandchildren while still working.   She is working part-time so she can help out, cutting into her own income and security in retirement.

It was disheartening then, to hear the NJ Hospital Association oppose legislation requiring employers to provide earned sick leave, given that most hospitals already do so in some form. Time and again, we hear healthcare workers say that they are pressured or penalized for taking their sick time – even though coming to work might expose their colleagues, patients, and the public to infection.

Even in nursing, men often make more than women in the same job. For example, male nurses made $5000 more a year than their female colleagues, according to a UCLA study, and other studies estimate that women in nursing make 86 cents for every dollar that male nurses make.

In one of our recent unionizing efforts, nurses were surprised to find that male nurses were, making more than their female colleagues. In another example, housekeepers, mostly women, were being paid $3 an hour less than maintenance workers, though the jobs were essentially the same.

A union job not only raises wages and provides sick leave, it also bases the pay on the job, not the gender.

Women earn more when they are unionized – about $212 more a week, and 75 percent have an employer-sponsored health plan, compared to 50 percent of nonunion women workers. Women of color also do better – Latinas make more than 40 percent higher wages than those who are non-union.

For the healthcare professions, workers make more when they are unionized, and the jobs can provide an entry into the middle class with benefits that should belong to everyone. Common-sense policies like wage equality and earned sick leave and support for unions are investments in our families and our childrens’ futures. Building strong families and a path to the middle class should be everyone’s mission.

Ann Twomey is the president and founder of HPAE

Equal and Fair Pay Is Everyone’s Issue