Continued Budget Cuts to the US Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau Means Trouble for America’s Working Women
by Juliette Terzieff
While most American women may have never even heard of the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, it is the only federal agency specifically tasked with addressing the issues that affect working women. Its low profile is a stark contrast to the weighty responsibilities that this small federal bureau is charged with. As a result, the bureau’s operating viability is highly susceptible to shifts in politics, at a time when America’s working women desperately need the continued attention and advocacy of a federal authority.
Founded by the U.S. Congress in 1920, the Women’s Bureau mandate includes the investigation into women’s working issues in order to identify and create remedies to address them.
Some of its recent programs included the Women with Disabilities Entrepreneurship Project, a two-year endeavor that provided education and guidance to women with disabilities to help them start their own businesses. The Bureau’s Girls E-Mentoring in Science, Engineering and Technology partnered young girls, aged 13-18, with female professionals in the fields via email and a web site that was designed to help create interest in and awareness of the career options available.
At a time when, social welfare programs continue to be cut and the workplace increasingly places a high premium on post-secondary education, women are finding themselves challenged in new ways. As such, the Women’s Bureau remains an extremely important tool for the advancement of women’s labor issues.
Yet the bureau’s allocated budget has been taking hits on and off since 2001, posting an overall budgetary drop from $10.1 million down to $9.6 million. While a half-million dollar cut might not seem terribly alarming at first glance, for a bureau with such a small overall budget, the funding decrease significantly affects program planning and the bureau’s ability to maintain staff.
But what is most worrying for those who support the bureau’s efforts and advocate for working women across America, are the implications suggested by persistent attempts to cut both the budget and the bureau’s field operations.
“Some argue that because there are so many women in the workforce that the battle is over, women have achieved parity with male colleagues,” says Erin Mohan, Public Policy Director for the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, Women Work!.
But the reality for most women is that the “battle” has yet to be won. Beyond the gender conflict of sexual harassment, the insidious plague of pay inequity continues to haunt the American workforce. Even though more than 40 years has passed since the Equal Pay Act was established in 1963, which the Women’s Bureau lobbied for, women in America earn only 77 cents on the dollar compared to men.
While education, experience and years in the workforce all contribute to how much a woman can expect to lose, generally speaking, women with a high school education can expect to earn $700,000 less than their male counterparts over their working careers, according to Women Work!. Women with undergraduate and graduate degrees will lose an average of $1.3 million and $2 million respectively compared to their male colleagues.
Women from diverse professions have been challenging pay inequity and discrimination in state and federal courts under a variety of existing civil rights and related laws for the last several decades. While there have been some spectacular successes – like Dr. Janet Conney, who was awarded $4 million by a jury after pre-trial depositions in her discrimination and retaliation case uncovered a secret reserve of money used by the University of California at Los Angeles to bolster the salaries of her male colleagues – even those have failed to make serious headway against discrimination as a general concern for women. In Conney’s case, those responsible for the research scientist’s treatment remain on staff at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital.
The concerns of working women took another major hit on May 29th when the Supreme Court ruled in Ledbetter vs. Goodyear that gender-based pay discrimination claims must be filed within a 180-day limit, stipulated by current civil rights law.
Lily Ledbetter, a supervisor at a Goodyear assembly plant in Alabama, claimed her salary was $6,500 less than her lowest paid male counterpart, and that while she and a male colleague hired at the same time began with equal salaries, fifteen years later her salary was $15,000 lower. Ledbetter argued that after 19 years of employment with the company, the difference equaled a serious cumulative gap.
While Ledbetter filed her case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 30 days of learning about the large salary differences, the Supreme Court upheld an appeal court decision that any claim could only address the last 180 days, not 19 years of discrimination.
The decision elicited widespread criticism. Women’s rights advocates say the Supreme Court’s ruling exemplifies the continued need for concentrated advocacy on behalf of America’s working women, including the strengthening of resources like the Women’s Bureau.
“Working women have overcome many obstacles in the last 50 years, but wage inequity is still very real for working women and their families,” says Mohan. “The Women's Bureau is uniquely positioned to counteract the popular opinion that women no longer face inequalities at work.”
For a list of interesting facts and statistics on working women in the US, visit the Women’s Bureau website and learn more – Ed.
About the Author
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist, currently based in Clearwater, FL, who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International, Women's eNews and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.