The first time I realized I was being underpaid, my shoulders crumpled as a trusted co-worker spoke softly with a grimace. I had just shared with her how excited I felt receiving my first raise at the medical equipment company I worked at since my freshman year of college. My co-worker’s face was distressed as she described how a new hire was earning several dollars more than my raise.
I considered myself supremely aware of shady business practices – my parents had instilled in me the importance of getting things in writing, negotiating my worth, and prioritizing my needs above those of a workplace. And yet, there I was in the back room of a small business, fighting tears at how worthless I felt.
I also consider myself lucky because I recognize how I look on paper. Delaine Anderson is the first thing future employers see when they pick up my resume – and she sounds White. Anderson conceals my Mexican ancestry, a gift from my father when non-Western names act as a tell in the game of white supremacist hiring. Trying to get a seat at this table usually requires non-White individuals to have an “American” name or to Anglicize their resumes.i I’m light-skinned too, so upon entering the workforce I tend to be an invisible minority – meaning many people don’t realize I’m Hispanic until I call them out for racist comments made in front of me. If my employer was taking advantage of me already without realizing my ethnicity, what’s happening to women of color who cannot pass as White? How different would my work experience have been if my resume had my mother’s maiden name, Barrera? Would she have even gotten this job?
At the time I was working in that position, I used my income to pay for my college living expenses – rent, food, car insurance, and gas to and from my job and classes. The income I lost would have probably amounted to less than $3,000 over the years I worked there. However, for most individuals, wage theft – defined as the income lost via non-payment of overtime, minimum wage, or any other wages rightfully owedii – can literally be the difference between whether or not a family is eating that month.
Looking nationally, a 2017 report estimates that $8 billion annually is stolen from employees, due to wage theft (Economic Policy Institute, 2017). If we zoom in, it shouldn’t be surprising that the binary genderiii pay gap exists inside, like a nesting doll of economic crime. Women in the United States have made less than men since before this country’s formation, and it’s estimated that the earliest pay equity could be reached is 2059 (Miller & Vagins, 2018). The Economic Policy Institute Report shows that women, people of color, and immigrant workers are more likely to report being victims of wage theft (Economic Policy Institute, 2017), which means these populations, specifically, are suffering income loss. Wage theft affects far more than just the individual’s finances. Think about the last time you felt cheated – there’s a hot feeling in your throat, your voice simultaneously suffocated and yearning to scream. I can attest that feeling undervalued as you clock-in and clock-out burns deeply at an hourly rate.
When I moved from Alabama to Minnesota for graduate school, I was curious about the changes in my new home. It was supposed to snow here in the winters and the state fair was not to be missed. In a more insidious way, leaving the South for the Midwest meant entering a place popular media said was going to be much ‘better’ than the ‘backwards’ country roads I had left. Many elites love to use the South as the poster-child for everything wrong in this country (and perhaps even rereading my experience with the understanding that I was in Alabama might leave you thinking “Well, that’s Alabama for you”), but my research is a firm testament that discrimination knows no geographical boundaries.
My previous experience made me passionate that no one, regardless of geographic location, should experience wage theft – so here in my new home, in a class project on health disparities, I searched for analyses about Minnesotan income by gender and racial/ethnic identity. Nationally, Minnesota ranks high in quality of life and health (2019 Median Household Income in the United States, 2020), but I had a sinking suspicion these rankings weren’t including the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other women of color – especially if these experiences weren’t properly documented. I was not able to find any meaningful analyses, only raw data, so I took it upon myself to quantify the actual financial well-being of women in Minnesota. We cannot adequately address systemic issues if we don’t provide evidence to the system for change.
Figure 1: Minnesotan Median Income by Race divided by Sex
Using data from the 2019 American Community Survey (Ruggles et. al, 2020), I compared the median income of Minnesota females who were employed full time to their male counterparts. I then analyzed the gender disparity within each racial/ethnic category. When looking at individuals who worked full-time, year-round, the median income for Minnesotan males in 2019 was $41,900 dollars (mean: $56,570) compared to $25,000 (mean: $35,642) for females. The disparity in income by sex was found within all racial/ethnic categories. Black/African American females had the lowest wage disparity by sex at 96 cents per $1 for males; Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander females experienced the largest wage gap, earning 30 cents per $1 made by males. When I contrasted all minority female median incomes, Asian females earned 71 cents, Black/African American females earned 64 cents, American Indian/Alaska Native females earned 59 cents, Hispanic/Latineiv females earned 55 cents, and Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander females earned 17 cents for every $1 made by White non-Hispanic males in Minnesota.
I didn’t think it was going to be that bad either.
The Hidden Costs
Income is associated with practically every dimension of health – physical wellness, mental status, life longevity, incidence of chronic disease, and nutrition have been most thoroughly associated (Khullar & Chokski, 2018). Access to healthcare and its associated expenditures can be unattainable without the adequate income required to meet employee contributions, copays, and deductibles. I also saw this play out in real time. In the job where I was financially undervalued, my position required me to confirm insurance coverage and file medical claims for expecting parents attempting to procure a breast pump, an essential tool for lactating individuals. While most pregnant people have insurance (thanks, Medicaid!), coverage types can fluctuate extremely regarding what upfront out-of-pocket payments are required or what percentage of care requires cost-sharing – before the insurance companies then go out of their way to deny claims. Many of our customers relied on me to provide them the most accurate information I could about what their insurance would pay for – often being completely vulnerable with me that they would not be able to pay for any pump that their insurance couldn’t help finance partially or completely.
In just this one dimension, the income stolen from women via wage theft makes all the difference in their quality of life with a newborn. A lactating individual who can express breastmilk with a pump and store it so a partner can also take on some of the feeding responsibilities without having to resort to formula will save money and time.v To put it simply – how much money someone walks away with after clocking out directly affects the type of life they are able to live. How much of this lost income has drastically reduced the ability of individuals to provide for themselves, their family, and their communities? Being chronically underpaid and undervalued takes a toll on one’s lifetime finances and health.
When I left that job due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I didn’t feel guilty; I felt freed. I knew I wasn’t valued in that workplace, and I didn’t have the leverage to increase my pay any more than I did already. It was only after someone else spoke up, to let me know I was being taken advantage of, that I could help encourage others to be transparent about their hiring and compensation practices. Besides the multitude of laws in place to protect and support workers from suffering wage theft, there are also individual level actions you can take too. If you are in a position of power, provide pay transparency in job postings and promotional practices so individuals can make informed decisions about their finances. Speak openly about your pay with other workers who are doing similar work to you; there is often a misconception that it is illegal to talk about your income (GovDocs, 2020). If my coworker hadn’t pushed through her visible discomfort in talking about income, I never would have suspected that I was a victim. After all – if you don’t know what’s wrong, you can’t start fixing it.
i Resume whitening is a studied phenomenon where ethnic individuals change their resume descriptions to avoid indicating diversity (Kang et al., 2016).
ii From the Interfaith Worker Justice project WageTheft, the most “common forms of wage theft are: non-payment of overtime, not giving workers their last paycheck after a worker leaves a job, not paying for all the hours worked, not paying minimum wage, [or] not paying a worker at all” (Interfaith Worker Justice, 2018).
iii I want to take a moment here to acknowledge that this paper will be discussing gender from a binary view – which is not representative of the spectrum of gender identities that exist and deserve to be included in this paper. How data collection methods are designed limit the ways in which we can analyze the data they create. This means I am unable to speak about the experience of non-binary, two-spirit, and other identities. Their experiences regarding income and wage theft are just as important and once again, excluded. There are better ways we can describe gender identity in data collection, at the very least by changing the variable design from binary (2 options) to categorical (3+ options) (Mintz, 2019).
iv From the UMN Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Action Team: “The term Latinx, adopted first by queer-identifying people of Latin American descent […] started to be used more frequently in academic circles. The term itself has caused some controversy as many within the Latino community are not familiar with it. A Pew Research survey found that only ⅓ of Latinos have heard or are familiar with the term. Many critics of the term oppose Latinx for being an elitist term that ostracizes the working-class population and their preferences. There is a deep tension between LGBTQIA+ rights advocates and those with deeply held religious beliefs. Latinx is also next to impossible to conjugate and varies in pronunciation. Opposition to this term has led to a new adaptation that has since been adopted globally and is making its way to the US. More and more countries have begun using “Latine” (pronounced Lah-teen-eh) as a way to be more inclusive within Spanish speaking communities. This term is not only easier to roll off the tongue but is capable of conjugation.”
v Formula companies have preyed on low-income parents worldwide for decades, trying to convince mothers that their breastmilk was ‘unclean’ and that formula was the right choice (Cullinan, 2020). It is estimated that feeling an infant formula for a year costs upward of $1200 (Office of the Surgeon General, 2011).
Cullinan, K. (2020, June 25). Infant formula companies are ‘exploiting’ COVID-19 pandemic. openDemocracy.
Economic Policy Institute. (2017). Employers steal billions from workers’ paychecks each year: Survey data show millions of workers are paid less than the minimum wage, at significant cost to taxpayers and state economies.
GovDocs. (2020, May 11). Can employees discuss pay and salaries? GovDocs.
Interfaith Worker Justice. (2018). Frequently asked questions about wage theft [Advocacy]. What Is Wage Theft?
Kang, S., DeCelles, K., Tilcsik, A., & Jun, S. (2016). Whitened résumés: Race and self-presentation in the labor market. Administrative Science Quarterly, 61(3), 55.
Khullar, D., & Chokski, D. (2018). Health, income, & poverty: Where we are & what could help. Health Affairs.
Miller, K., & Vagins, D. (2018). The simple truth about the gender pay gap | Fall 2018 edition (p. 32). American Association of University Women.
Mintz, M. (Host). (2019, December 1). Change pays (No.1): Assigning gender to Data. In S&P Global.
Office of the Surgeon General, A. S. for H. (ASH). (2011, January 19). Breastfeeding: Surgeon General’s call to action fact sheet. HHS.Gov.
Steven Ruggles, Sarah Flood, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, Erin Meyer, Jose Pacas and Matthew Sobek. IPUMS USA: Version 10.0 [2019 American Community Survey 1-year Estimates Microdata Samples TableID: B20017A-E, H, I [SAS Data file].]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS, 2020.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2020). 2019 Median household income in the United States.