Nearly half of all Black workers in the US make less than $15 an hour: ‘How is anybody supposed to live?’

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  • 47% of Black workers and 70% of women of color earn less than $15 an hour, less than a living wage in most major US cities.
  • Wage suppression among Black workers is still influenced by the history of Jim Crow laws, labor experts say.

Ieisha Franceis wakes up at 4 a.m. every morning and isn’t able to put her head down to bed until 11 p.m. that day.

She works at a Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers in North Carolina. She doesn’t own a car and relies on a two hour bus commute to work every day, only after she prepares her 12-year-old son for school.

Franceis works eight hour days earning $12 an hour. That often means having to make decisions about what bills she can pay this month, and what bills she can put off till the next.

Her reality is one of millions of Black people and women of color experience in the workplace across the country.

“At some point, something has got to give,” Franceis told Insider. “The cost of living has got to equal out. You cannot expect people to pay $1,100 and $1,200 and $3,000 dollars in rent … Plus pay electric bills, gas bills, water bills, whatever bills they may have. And by making what? Making $10 an hour? $11? $7.25? $8? How is anybody supposed to live?”

Last month, an Oxfam study revealed that 32% of workers across the US earn less than $15 an hour — which, given a 40 hour work week, is not a livable wage in any major city in the US.

Within that, 47% of Black workers in the US earn less than $15 an hour, the highest of any racial group. And 70% of women of color earn less than $15 an hour, the highest of any demographic.

“One of the things that we are really advocating for with this report is that, not only do we need to lift wages in this country, but what we really need to do is have a universal minimum wage,” said Kaitlyn Henderson, a senior researcher at Oxfam America and the author of the Oxfam report.

“Right now we have minimum wage laws. And then we have a subminimum wage, which is largely for tipped workers. And then there are some workers, including still to this day, certain farm workers that are completely excluded from the minimum wage law. And so the racist history of this, and sexist history of this legislation sort of echoes even today.”

Nearly half of all Black workers in the US make less than $15 an hour: 'How is anybody supposed to live?'
Protestors hold a sign outside Freddy’s Frozen Yogurt in North Carolina that reads “We Strike & We Vote.”Erica Noll

The legacy of Jim Crow is the foundation of the modern US labor market, experts say.

Professor Joel Suarez, a labor studies professor at the City University of New York, said the data in this study is not surprising given the US’s history of economy and labor. The historical exclusion of people of color within labor protections, going all the way back to Jim Crow laws for African Americans, is reflected in the low wages today.

“Jim Crow was utterly shaped by the institution of slavery. A lot of the New Deal labor legislation, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Wagner Act of 1935. It excluded domestic workers and agricultural workers, which is overwhelmingly where African Americans worked and that is a product of having Americans being concentrated in the South,” Suarez said.

African American workers in the farming and domestic sectors were left out of the first minimum wage created in 1938.

Suarez said that African Americans who moved from the South to the North in the early and mid-20th century were afforded some of those labor protections immediately. In most cases, they saw their wages double overnight and had access to social services not present in many Southern states.

It was easier to grant industrial factory workers protections primarily because of the centralized aspect of the work and many became unionized. But he said that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a concerted effort by racist politicians in Washington to exclude African Americans from labor protections.

This was made worse during the 1980s as Federal Reserve Chair, Paul Volcker dramatically raised interest rates to fend off inflation, but what it actually did was worsen the recession for workers.

And Black workers who were just receiving gains from the Civil Rights Movement were hit particularly hard, Suarez said.

“Instead of being focused on sort of high consumption, high wages, wage compression, it instead focused on what an economist called labor market flexibility.” In other words, workers’ fears of losing their jobs prevented them from speaking up for a higher salary, keeping wage inflation low. Economist Alan Greenspan called it “heightened job insecurity.”

Suarez points to the fact that Black unemployment is currently almost twice what white unemployment rates are, which is a byproduct of this phenomenon. It ensures — and relies upon the fact — that at any given time, there will be a segment of unemployed workers.

“You create monetary and macroeconomic conditions [that] were allowing a certain percentage of unemployment, all for the sake of what they call price stability, or making sure that inflation doesn’t get out of hand,” Suarez said. “Economists came up with this term called the natural rate of unemployment.”

Nearly half of all Black workers in the US make less than $15 an hour: 'How is anybody supposed to live?'
Home care worker Deborah Linette McAllister speaks at a rally calling for urgent focus home care as part of the Build Back Better Act at the U.S. Capitol on September 23, 2021.Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Unbendable Media

Low wage workers say they will continue to organize for higher wages, benefits, and unions.

Deborah Linette McAllister, is a home healthcare aid for her 80 year-old mother who has dementia, Alzheimer’s and hematoma. She is hindered by a fixed monthly income of $822 in Burgaw, North Carolina, and her rent has gone up twice since the start of the pandemic.

“To live off that, we struggle every single month,” McAllister said. McAllister worked in local government for over 20 years, but because she retired early to take care of her mother, she didn’t receive her full pension.

McAllister’s situation highlights a hidden segment of the report encompassing caregivers, farm workers, student workers, tipped wage workers, and workers with disabilities who all make, in most cases, less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

Every day, McAllister calls her US Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr and frequently sends letters expressing to them the need to raise the minimum wage and the urgency to pass the Build Back Better Act, which would allow McAllister to hire a home healthcare aid for her mother so that she could go back to work.

McAllister and Franceis are both a part of unionization efforts at their places of work and fighting on a national level for $15 an hour. They said $15 an hour is a start, but they are also working toward other basic benefits, like healthcare.

“All we want, basically, is a basis of equality where everybody’s on the same page and there’s not this class, that class or the other class. Everybody is able to deal with their day to day lives and not, you know, pretty much struggle to survive,” Franceis said.

Madison Hoff contributed to this report.

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