Congress Must Pass Raise the Wage Act, Secure Better Future for Women [Op-Ed]

By Destiny Lopez, Saru Jayaraman Mar 08, 2019

The women who put food on our tables at restaurants across this country too often struggle to put food on their own. They’re our servers, bartenders, hosts, food runners and cooks, and many of them are just one unexpected medical event away from experiencing deeper economic instability. For those living paycheck to paycheck, it can be nearly impossible to come up with hundreds of dollars to tend to their health. If that unexpected medical expense is an abortion, things can quickly get complicated if her insurance won’t cover it.

For more than 20 years, politicians have allowed the restaurant industry to pay workers as little as $2.13 an hour, forcing them to live off tips. What’s worse, workers who are paid a tipped wage—more than 65 percent of whom are female—experience a greater level of poverty than any other employee in the general workforce. The poverty level wages that women in the service industry are subjected to can make it impossible to afford basic expenses like rent and food, let alone reproductive health care.

Gradually increasing the tipped wage, and raising the federal minimum wage, now through the Raise the Wage Act (introduced in January), would help lift women and their families out of poverty, increase access to health care and give women more options when deciding if they want to become a parent.

As Congress has kept wages low for female workers for decades, it has also denied many of those same women, especially low-income women and women color, affordable abortion care by passing the Hyde Amendment year after year. First passed in 1976, the Hyde Amendment took away abortion coverage for all women enrolled in Medicaid health insurance. Over the years, it has been expanded to also ban abortion coverage for federal employees and their dependents, women who get their health insurance through other government programs, including Native American women, immigrants detained in federal detention centers, low-income women in the District of Columbia and those enrolled in other federal insurance programs like Medicare and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

When politicians withhold Medicaid coverage of abortion, they force people with low wages to pay for care out of pocket—or become the one in four poor women forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.

Much like when members of Congress continuously refuse to raise the minimum and tipped wages, when those same politicians pass the Hyde Amendment year after year, they perpetuate systems and structures designed to discriminate against poor women and women of color.

Each of us, whatever our job or zip code, should be able to live, work and make decisions about our future with dignity and economic security. This must always include decisions about pregnancy and parenting. Fair wages, decent working conditions and access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion, help ensure that women and families can be healthy and autonomous. Ensuring that a woman can get insurance coverage for reproductive healthcare—including birth control, pregnancy tests, prenatal care and abortion—is an important part of ensuring the she has equal economic opportunities.

But as we’ve seen in recent years, with the increase in state abortion restrictions and continued attempts by the Trump administration to not only ban abortion coverage in public health programs, but private insurance plans as well, politicians will stop at nothing to attack abortion care.

But we’re fighting back. And today, on International Women’s Day, you can join us by calling on lawmakers to lift abortion coverage bans and ensure that each of us can make our own decisions about our health care without political interference.

We refuse to stand by while those struggling to make ends meet are left with the impossible choice of keeping a roof over their heads or paying for health services. It’s time for Congress to pass the Raise the Wage Act.

Destiny Lopez is the co-director of All* Above All, which builds support for lifting bans that deny abortion coverage. Tweet her @DLoTweets.

Saru Jayaraman is president of Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Tweet her @SaruJayaraman.