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Living, working, and retiring in the wage gap

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I was born a fierce child—a screaming red-haired, red-faced ball of colic in the oppressive heat of a mid-Texas July. For the rest of my life, mom would refer to the small town where I was born as “rigor mortis,” to describe her sense of being immobilized by the heat.

Even after we moved to rural Washington State to escape the heat, Texas followed me every day of my life. I spent much of my childhood exploring the forest and canyons near our home and received praise from my parents for being strong and tough because I was “from Texas.” I worked hard building camps and pushing through scrapes and bruises without a tear. I can’t remember when I didn’t have a pocketknife and a small box of wooden matches in my pocket. I showed off to dad’s friends that I could grab onto the electric wire of the hog fence and hold to it for several impressive seconds without flinching. The praise I got for these feats felt warm like sunshine. By the age of ten or eleven, I still dressed boyish in the image of Elvis, allowing my pants to sag slightly, held up around my bony hips by a thin belt. I sang “Hound Dog” for my mom, using a broom for guitar.

On most days, I felt the vital world of possibility. I had no idea that I would soon enter new territory. The changes were slow but undeniable—hair growing where it had never been before, buds appearing where my flat chest had been. It was uncomfortable, and people were beginning to treat me differently. I didn’t like any of it. My thoughts, ambitions, and dreams did not have a gender.

I felt angry and confused about the changes in my body because there were simultaneous signs that I was losing ground and status in my family. Aggressive and confident behavior that had previously garnered praise and brought that warm sunshine of approval was now met with concern that it might fall outside the boundaries of proper female behavior, appear too direct, or make a man feel uncomfortable.

These gender roles were reinforced in my small-town high school, which was tasked with preparing us for the workforce. I was required to take home economics to prepare me for a future as a housewife and caregiver. I liked home ec but had already learned most of it following my mom around. I wanted to take shop with the guys, but girls were not allowed to learn how to fix cars and construct homes. I was placed in a vocational conduit that dropped me off in typing class. My declared interest in being a doctor was met with a good-natured chuckle and the suggestion that I might consider being a nurse instead. Even being a television or radio announcer was out of the question. Adults in the know told me that women’s voices did not convey authority. Driving a bulldozer or front loader was not in the mix either. The world of possibility that I inhabited as a child narrowed. I was nauseated with fear that I was being slowly led into the dungeon of powerless irrelevance that I saw my mother submit to everyday.

I left home as soon as I was eighteen, in the summer of 1964, and applied for jobs in Seattle. Newspapers listed job openings in two main categories: “Men Wanted” and “Women Wanted. In spite of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the creation of equal employment opportunity laws, newspapers discriminated on behalf of employers with impunity. I stayed within the proper newspaper column and worked for a while at entry-level clerical jobs and as a waitress.

I was barely twenty when I succumbed to the dominant message that a woman’s true fulfillment was husband and family. I had two children to care for by the time I was twenty-four. My marriage was faltering, and I was working at Archie’s Waeside restaurant in Le Mars, Iowa for $1.25 per hour. The farmers did not tip much, but it still seemed like a step up from seventy-five cents per hour at the Greyhound Bus Station in Montana where I worked before. Then, some friends told me about the Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) meat packing plant where they worked, about thirty-five miles away in Dakota City, Nebraska. I could start at around three dollars per hour vacuum-packaging cuts of beef, and I could carpool with them. It was 1971, and women were being paid about 60 percent of any wage offered to a man. Jobs were difficult to find in a rural area regardless of gender, but the packing house offered the opportunity to earn a better wage.

I grew accustomed to production line work and the close camaraderie with others who worked physically hard. The union set the wages for the particular job descriptions across the plant. Jobs that required a lot of physical strength were categorized as heavy breaking jobs and were commonly referred to as “men’s jobs.” Jobs that required fine motor skills and were less physically demanding, like packaging, trim, and small boning jobs, were known to be for women. I worked my way up from packaging through smaller boning jobs and then decided to bid on a heavy breaking job. The Texas part of me still enjoyed a physical challenge; I enjoyed working with a knife; and I needed the income to provide for my children. The salary for pulling clods, the muscle in the scapula of beef cattle, was around eight or ten dollars per hour—a lot of money in the 1970s, when there was growing unemployment, inflation, and other economic problems.

I didn’t anticipate any resistance in applying for a “man’s job,” and there wasn’t any. The company and union requirements were clear. Bidding on a job gave priority to seniority—the employee’s time on the production line. There were no gender requirements. After seniority was verified, I had to qualify for the job by being able to pull a clod every twenty seconds during my eight-hour workday. If I failed, I went back to my previous job, boning arms. There was no interview and very little discussion. The costuming was the same—a cotton frock, hard hat, mesh glove, arm guard, hook, belly guard, and a sheath of knives hanging from the waist. One concerned owner of the plant checked in with me to be sure I knew it was a “man’s job” and I politely responded that being able to do it within the qualifying time probably mattered more. He quickly agreed that keeping the chain moving was all that mattered to him. My assertiveness did not come from a training class, an interest in feminism, or the women’s movement. I had zero knowledge of such things. It came from my own internal sense of justice and capability.

I arrived on the clod line without fanfare. Most of the men there were from Mexico and were welcoming and seemed unconcerned about my gender. A few men who were about the same size as me noted that when they trained me, saying, “This is how us little guys do it,” and emphasized the importance of keeping a sharp blade and using my whole body to pull the muscle from the scapula, as each front quarter made its way around the stainless-steel enclosure. I qualified for the job and enjoyed income equality for about eighteen months. For the first time in my working life, it felt like I had full membership in society and an equal opportunity to support my family.

The workforce at IBP was very diverse. African Americans, Native Americans, and women who faced hiring and pay discrimination from other employers were always welcome at IBP, as long as they were capable and willing to work hard. It was a place to make a decent wage with a high school education, or less. They even had an employee stock option program. But there were still challenges to advancement.

The owners, Andy Anderson and Currier Holman, were a constant presence in the plant. I saw them on both the afternoon and morning shifts and wondered if their families ever saw them. We knew them on a first name basis, and they remembered ours if we greeted them often enough. We all worked hard, including them. I respected that.

The owners stopped by several times to observe my work on the heavy-breaking chain. The union contract was coming up for negotiation and there was a lot of talk about going out on strike. They would soon need every non-union employee working extra shifts to keep the plant open. One day, Currier Holman called me into the office and offered me a management job as a quality control (QC) worker. QCs walked around and made sure the quality of the product was being preserved with minimal waste. If I accepted, I would resign my union stewardship and become a non-union company employee. The pay was good, and it was easier on the body than the repeat motion of running a knife forty or more hours per week. All I needed to do was trade my white hardhat in for a yellow one. One thing bothered me though—QC was always a woman’s promotion. There were no male QCs. Men on the line were promoted to line foreman and wore a green hard hat. They had the authority to discipline an employee (within union guidelines) and even fire people. I came back with my answer. I would go company if he would promote me to foreman. I respectfully made the point that I was doing a “man’s job” and should receive a man’s promotion. The look on his face was a combination of dismay and disappointment. There simply weren’t any forewomen, and his response reflected that reality as if it were unchangeable. Unlike my move to the heavy-breaking job on the production line, advancement to quality control or foreman required walking across an invisible bridge into corporate administration. People on the line were judged on productivity, but in administration, performance measurements became much more political, gendered, and nuanced. Foreman was a position of authority, and women simply did not command authority.

In addition to being turned down for a foreman promotion, a less noble factor in my hesitation to go company was that I was afraid of being the target of union violence, which had previously included bombing, arson, and more. I lived with my two children in one of the fifty brightly colored, two-bedroom, cement block and stucco homes built for workers behind the plant, where we moved after my divorce. My decision had to take their safety into consideration. I turned down the QC job and went out on strike in the summer of 1973 with the rest of the union employees. Strike pay was inadequate; the walkout dragged on for more than six months and became violent.

I came back to work when the new contract was approved in January 1974, and it all seemed like a disruption of lives for very little gain. While we were out, strike pay was meager. I supplemented my strike pay with a waitressing job, but many families lost their homes, cars, boats, and financial security. The sense of stability at IBP was gone for me. Anything seemed better than living behind the plant with two children and the potential for violent strike disruption every few years.

I returned to the Northwest with my children and tried working clerical jobs again, but it was difficult to make ends meet. I applied to be an USDA meat inspector. The Feds had opened these jobs to women, and I hoped to make a decent living. I was assigned to the slaughter operation at Hygrade in Tacoma, Washington, about forty miles away from where we were living in Seattle. Each morning, I dropped my youngest daughter off at a sleepy-eyed friend’s house around 4:30 a.m. and continued my commute to arrive at the barn for live inspection by 5:00 a.m. She would bring my child to the daycare center with her own daughter, after it opened at 6:00 a.m. Overtime was required and not predictable; there were times that the slaughter operation ran six days a week, ten hours per day. This was fine for men who had wives to care for the children, do the banking, and manage the household. It was impossible for me. I lasted about eighteen months before the demands of the job became completely incompatible with being a single mom. I returned to the world of pantyhose, where the pay was barely enough to pay my rent and feed my children, let alone afford the more expensive mode of dress required for my gender in an office setting. That was the last time I had access to wage equality for any length of time during more than forty years of working life.

What I was experiencing has recently been termed the “Motherhood Penalty.” A 2017 study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that “The lifetime earnings of a mother with one child are 28 percent less than the earnings of a childless woman,” and each additional child decreases her earnings by another three percent. Social Security retirement benefits reflect those lifetime earnings, which means that the mother of one child will also receive 16 percent less in retirement benefits than non-mothers. That figure increases by an additional 2 percent for each additional child.

During the 1980s, I worked my way into several human resources jobs and noticed more subtle methods of discrimination. By now women were earning sixty-three cents on every dollar paid to men. Prices were the only thing that was equal. I noticed that job postings aimed at women (and budgeted at a lower rate of pay) had job titles that were described as “coordinating” things and people. Positions that had a man as a prospective employee described similar duties, but they were “managing” people and things, not coordinating them.

I couldn’t find a path to advancement that matched the simplicity of the production line at IBP, where the system was biased but explicit enough for me to fight for higher-paying work. In the office jobs, there was all this nuanced (and not-so-nuanced) bargaining based on clothing, gender, education, and association that I was not sophisticated enough to navigate. It was like an obstacle course. There was more to success than the simplistic formula—that I would be rewarded for providing an honest day’s work.

A few women of my generation did successfully navigate employment in the male job sector. Lilly Ledbetter worked as an area manager for a Goodyear plant in Alabama for nineteen years. Just as she was preparing to retire in 1998, an anonymous payroll worker provided her with evidence that she had been paid around 25 percent less than her male peers. Her starting salary was the same. However, she received lower increases over time, even in comparison to male counterparts with less education, training, and seniority. She initially won a generous financial settlement. However, this was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2007, which upheld an Eleventh Circuit Court ruling that she had failed to file her complaint within the 180-day statute of limitations. This decision ignored the fact that confidentiality made it impossible for her to know her pay was discriminatory. As a consequence, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which states that each discriminatory paycheck amounts to a new discrimination and resets the 180-day time limit. It did not reverse the injustice to Lilly Ledbetter, but it might protect future women workers.

In our materialistic society, equal pay demonstrates full membership in our society. I have read various studies expressing concern for the problem of equal compensation and equal retirement solutions. Toward the end, they often use the phrase “going forward” and then propose what should occur. I take issue with going forward without also going backward to correct the systemic biases in our Social Security system. I have learned the hard way that wage inequity really matters at retirement. Like many single moms, I was too busy making ends meet on a daily basis to give it much thought. I am not alone. Evelyn Murphy, of the WAGE Project, estimates that, during forty-seven years of full-time employment, a working woman with a high school education will lose $700,000 in lifetime earnings due to the gap in wages between men and women. College and professional school graduates lose between $1.2 million and $2 million. In 2015, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimated that women “won’t receive equal pay until 2059.” As of 2018, the wage gap stands at 81.6 percent.

Sixteen percent of women over age sixty-five live in poverty and depend on Social Security for their primary source of income. That percentage increases to 26 percent if they never married or did not stay married for the ten years that the Social Security Administration requires to collect a spouse’s social security. The figure is higher for women of color and LGBTQ women. Millions of women in my generation retired in the same wage gap we endured during our working years. We should not spend the last twenty years of their lives in poverty. Old women are people too.

Comments

3 comments have been posted.

I have been aware of the inequities of women's vs men's wages for decades from talking to women friends and my sister. I began to see its effect on Social Security first hand starting in 2009 through 2014 when I was working for King County, Washington. They had established ,years before, a 'Housing Repair Program' for low to moderate income households. I was one of their interviewers/loan officers. Many of the households we assisted were single women over 65, retired, living on Social Security and barely stretching their income to pay rent, clothing, and groceries; replace rent with taxes and insurance if they owned the house. I remember at least two who received less than $700 per month, many less than $800, and still more less than $850 per month. I would struggle to live making that much per week . Josey Coopers article reveals how these inequities are created and the need for SS reform with a higher base income now, to allow these seniors to not live in such poverty after a lifetime of employment.

Greg Cooper | May 2020 | Seattle, Washington

Josey and I are the same age and when reading this I said so many times, "yep." She outlines the issue of pay inequality perfectly. And it continues. She's a wonderful writer, concise and factual. And a wonderful friend, concise in her advice and caring in its delivery.

Judi Hertz | May 2020 | Portland, Oregon

What a knockout of a beginning to such a well-written essay. I recognize the stories (though not in meat plants which seems particularly challenging for any human) and noted how the writer managed to get in so much detail in a life challenging enough to evoke some bitterness. This article is absent of that, but full of the historical realities that still play out for women in this generation. Such an evocative, thoughtful piece of work.

melissa madenski | April 2020 |

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