Single Mothers and the Wage Gap: Fair Labor Standards Act

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Click Here to Read About the History and Coverage of the Fair Standards Labor Act

The Fair Labor Standards Act is a piece of legislation that has existed since 1938. The legislation called for the establishment of the minimum wage as well as maximum work hours per week. From its genesis in 1938, it has been revised a total of twenty six times to adjust the minimum wage and expand the coverage of the wage. The Act provided for ethical treatments of the working class by providing a stable wage, however there were many groups who were discriminated against in what the Act did not cover. Among these groups were women, and the effects of the Fair Labor Standards Act on their wages and income has persisted institutionally to today, despite de jure adjustments of the law.

When first passed into law, the Fair Labor Standards Act included only those who participated in commercial trade or the selling of commercial goods. As time went on, the coverage of a minimum wage was expanded to include air transportation, retail trade with incomes of one million dollars annually, public schools, nursing homes, laundry entities, construction companies, and farms (conditionally). Still, the bill left out occupations such as domestic services, hotel work, clerical work, hospitals, restaurants, and cleaners. Aside from the fact that these occupations were not included in the Fair Labor Standards Act for establishing a minimum wages, they also generally devoid of benefits, including health coverage, or paid leave.

The omission of these occupations alienated a large proportion of women in the workplace. While a significant number of women held jobs in clerical work, perhaps the most common source of work for decades was in domestic work. Black women, in particular, worked in this field most frequently. Per dog whistle politics, many were concerned that raising the wage to a minimum standard for these positions, housework in particular, would quell the market of middle-upper class individuals who paid for such work to be done. Concerns over inflation were also to blame for a hesitancy to include domestic and clerical work in the coverage of the Act.

Groups of women, including organization such as the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), student lobbyists, and the Council of Churches, among many others, advocated for the inclusion of these positions to be included as an amendment to the Act. Through the cooperation of these groups, the issue was brought before the House in 1973 and the proceeding year, 1974, the Act expanded to include domestic and government workers within its provisions. Hotel and restaurant work was included by 1981, but was excluded in the overtime clause that had been added at the same time.

The way the minimum wage has been altered over the years does not give much stability to either the minimum wage or wages in general. The fact that domestic and clerical work was excluded from the minimum wage requirements for so long gives us some idea that the prejudices of the time were being excused by dog whistle politics and economic argumentation. The retributions for this pattern of economical exclusion, however, has resulted in working class women whose roles in the workplace have only been recognized as being worthy of a fair wage within the last three decades. When contrasted with the history of male job opportunities and wage security that began in the late 1930s, approximately fifty years earlier, it should not be surprising to any one of us that the justification of discrimination in wages is embedded deeply within our institutional structure, both at government and corporate levels. Whether intentional or not, there is higher value placed on those occupations which tend to employ men. In a household, then, where the head of the home is a single mother, wage gaps and discrimination in the workplace both in stigma of certain professions as well as in actual salary/income gaps are both unethical and unhealthy. It is through institutional discrimination such as this that a group of working, poor single mothers find difficulty raising themselves out of poverty and where we find gaps in the ratio of poor single mothers to poor single fathers.

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