Seventy-five years ago last week, the nation celebrated a major victory for women and families when the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) became law. Then U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins drafted the bill, and women leaders like her were instrumental in its passage. It established the federal minimum wage. It outlawed child labor. And even more than those specific advances, it was a turning point for the nation because it signaled broad recognition of the need for labor standards that help make our workplaces fair to all.
But, despite the historic significance of the FLSA, and women’s pivotal role in its passage, women continue to be hard hit by its exclusion of certain industries. This has resulted in too many women being denied its protections. Home care workers, for example, are overwhelmingly female and exempted from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime protections. They are paid so little, on average, that nearly half must rely on public assistance to support their families.
Women are also disproportionately concentrated in low-wage jobs. They make up nearly two-thirds of tipped workers who are paid the sub-minimum wage, which has been stuck at a mere $2.13 per hour for more than 20 years.
Given that women are increasingly economic engines in our families and economy, paying them low wages and excluding them from some of the FLSA’s most fundamental protections is especially damaging. Women are now the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of U.S. households with children and make up nearly half of the workforce. Seventy-five years after the FLSA became law, promoting women’s economic security is more important than ever. Sadly, it seems to be far from a priority for Congress.
There have been some improvements in in the past 75 years. In 1963, the Equal Pay Act amended the FLSA to require equal pay for equal work for women. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act outlawed workplace discrimination based on pregnancy. In 1993, President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees eligible workers unpaid, job-protected leave when they need it most. And the federal minimum wage has been increased (although less frequently in recent years, and not since 2009).
What is troubling is how much more can and should be done, and Congress’ apparent reluctance to do it. First, Congress can and should take meaningful action to expand the FLSA. By passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would amend the FLSA, it can take an important step toward curbing pay discrimination and closing the gender-based wage gap. And by passing the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would increase the minimum and sub-minimum wage rates, it can increase wages for 30 million workers, the majority of whom are women.
The Obama administration can also take concrete steps to strengthen the FLSA by closing harmful loopholes. The Department of Labor should finalize a rule it proposed in 2012 to help ensure that home care workers get the same minimum wage and overtime protections that other workers enjoy. Excluding this critical segment of the workforce has threatened the economic security of women and families for much too long.
But, in order to fully meet the needs of today’s working families, we must look beyond the FLSA. America’s families need public policies that better reflect the dual demands of job and family. That’s why Congress can and should prioritize family friendly policy standards like the Healthy Families Act, which would give 90 percent of the private sector workforce the opportunity to earn paid sick days, and a national paid leave insurance program — so no worker has to choose between job and family when illness strikes, babies are born, or loved ones need care. Congress should also prioritize the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would strengthen existing protections against pregnancy discrimination.
Taking these steps would advance the promise of the FLSA and result in badly needed — and wildly popular — updates to labor standards. These modest, reasonable advances would help to protect the economic security of families, strengthen businesses and our economy, and save valuable taxpayer dollars. They should be top priorities for Congress. The FLSA was a historic victory for working women and their families, but it is well past time for more.