I met Julie Vogtman when we were both summer associates at a DC law firm, and I was thrilled to reconnect with her recently at a Dupont Circle Starbucks. After chatting about our holidays and seeing pictures of her adorable 10-month-old daughter, we talked about the great work that she and others are doing at the National Women’s Law Center.
Kate: Can you talk about what you do at the National Women’s Law Center?
Julie: The National Women’s Law Center works to advance policies that can improve the lives of women and their families. Our work covers the range of issues that we typically think of as women’s issues, such as women’s health, reproductive rights, and employment discrimination. But we also tackle problems that aren’t necessarily viewed as women’s issues, like poverty and economic insecurity—and that’s my area of expertise.
Kate: Can you explain how it is that poverty is a women’s issue?
Julie: Women are more likely than men to live in poverty at all stages of their lives due to a range of reasons— for example, women typically are paid less than men in the workforce, and they are also more likely to bear the expenses of raising children on their own. More than half of poor children live with single moms. So we advocate for policies and programs that support low-income families and help them escape poverty because these measures are especially important for women.
Kate: Can you talk about a specific policy you advocate for? I saw that you’ve written a lot about the minimum wage
Julie: As you mentioned, a big one is raising the minimum wage, which is just $7.25 an hour at the federal level. Two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, and women are also the vast majority of workers in jobs that might pay a little more than minimum wage but not enough to make ends meet. And our economy is creating more of these low-wage jobs: in 2014, over one-third of women’s job gains were in low-wage sectors.
I want to note that raising the minimum wage really has to include raising the minimum wage for tipped workers, who are also mostly women. The federal tipped minimum cash wage is $2.13 an hour, and this amount hasn’t changed in 24 years. I made that much when I was a server in college. Of course, employers are required under the law to make up the difference between the tipped minimum wage and the regular minimum wage, but in practice the law is very hard to enforce . . . and even if an employee’s pay does get up to the minimum wage, that’s just not enough to support a family. But what we’ve found in our analysis at NWLC—perhaps not surprisingly!—is that when tipped workers are paid more, they’re less likely to live in poverty. The average poverty rate for female tipped workers in states like California and Minnesota, where tipped workers are entitled to the regular minimum wage before tips, is one-third lower than in states where the tipped minimum wage is $2.13 an hour.
Kate: I didn’t realize there’s been zero movement in the tipped minimum wage for so long.
Julie: It’s really appalling. And workers making minimum wage (or close to it) are more likely to face a host of other challenges as well. Often they work in jobs with unpredictable and unstable schedules that they don’t know more than a day or two in advance. They might be scheduled to work 30 hours in one week but only 12 hours the next, so they don’t have a steady paycheck to count on. They rarely have paid sick days. All of these factors make it very difficult to plan anything outside of work, like education or training that could help you get a better job—and it’s especially hard if you’re a parent trying to figure out a stable child care arrangement.
Kate: Blogger’s Note: And families that are dependent on the income of a working mother often suffer even more when employers fail to accommodate the health needs of pregnant workers, as my colleagues wrote about last month.
President Obama talked about paid sick days in his State of the Union speech, asking Congress to send him a bill that gives every the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave. What was your reaction to the speech?
Julie: I thought it sent an important message about what we need to do to make sure that more people can share in the economic recovery that is finally starting to take hold. In particular, I appreciated the President’s call to increase investments in child care and high-quality pre-Kindergarten programs—and to pay for those investments by ending unfair tax breaks that benefit the wealthiest Americans and corporations. The budget that the President just released this week reinforces that message; his plan for early childhood education is one of many proposals—like expanded tax credits for low- and moderate-income families, paid leave initiatives, affordable higher education, and a higher minimum wage—that could do a lot to expand opportunity and increase economic security for women and their families.
Kate: What is the role of the National Women’s Law Center in advocating for these policies and programs?
Julie: We gather and analyze data so we can understand and illustrate the challenges women are facing, and we try to present our research to policymakers and the public in an accessible way to help them recognize both the nature of the problem and the need for a policy solution. Often we advocate for solutions in the form of legislation and regulations, and sometimes we work to find private-sector solutions.
Kate: Is your legislative work focused primarily on the state or federal levels?
Julie: In the economic security arena we often focus on federal legislation, but we also work with state partners to, for example, advocate for raising the state minimum wage or improving a state-level tax credit. And I know some of my colleagues are working to pass state legislation to protect women’s access to health care, improve scheduling practices, and end discrimination against pregnant workers. We’re finding that more states are recognizing, often in a bipartisan manner, that workers should not have to decide between having a job that supports their families and having healthy families to support.
Kate: Blogger’s Note: Check out my interview with Professor Naomi Schoenbaum, in which she talks about the Pregnant Worker’s Fairness Act, which would mandate reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, and the groundswell of support that the legislation has received on a state level.
Could you talk more about your efforts in the private sector?
Julie: As one example, last year we organized a congressional briefing in which Margot Dorfman, the CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, spoke in support of raising the minimum wage; the many thousands of small business owners she works with recognize that higher wages would mean more customers. And I’m doing some research right now to seek out employers that are finding ways to implement better scheduling policies for their lower-wage, hourly employees.
Kate: I’ve been involved with advocacy work fighting against forced arbitration. While Congress has not passed the Arbitration Fairness Act, public outcry over a General Mills’ policy providing that individuals agree to waive their rights to sue the company simply by liking their Facebook page caused the company to reverse course. I think it is great to explore private-sector solutions, particularly when legislative efforts are frustrated.
Julie: That’s a great example, and it reminds me of where we are now—Starbucks. After The New York Times reported last summer on how Starbucks’ fluctuating and unpredictable hours disrupted the life of a single mother trying to arrange child care and classes so her family would have a chance at a better life, the company responded within 24 hours that it would modify its scheduling practices to improve the stability and consistency of hours for its employees.
Kate: Are you optimistic that things will get better for America’s working women and families?
Julie: In the long term, yes, I am optimistic. I think we’re at a turning point now in that we‘re seeing greater public awareness around some of the issues we’ve been talking about today. There is widespread frustration among the American public over low and stagnant wages. Poverty remains high and the middle class is feeling stretched. And in part due to efforts from organizations like ours to explain how unstable life can be for too many Americans who are working so hard just to make ends meet, we’re seeing more people understand the nature and extent of the problem.
That knowledge can translate into policy change. For example, last year voters in four states—Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota—overwhelmingly supported ballot measures to raise the minimum wage. Not everyone who voted to increase the minimum wage would themselves receive a raise. But they voted for it anyway. People are starting to understand that these measures are necessary because of the simple fact that minimum wage is not enough for families to get by.
Of course, not every issue we work on can go directly to the voters, and we face some real political obstacles. I do not think we’re going to solve all of our problems in 2015, but I do think we’re heading in the right direction.
Kate: On a more personal note, what you do find most rewarding about your work?
Julie: This sounds cheesy but it’s true—I really find it rewarding that I get to come to work every day and do my best to help families who are really struggling just to get by. This is much more rewarding to me than, for example, representing giant corporations. And every single one of my colleagues feels the same way. Sometimes we’re frustrated by the pace of change, but we’re committed to seeing it through.
Kate: Finally, as a new mom yourself who is working full time, how is work is going for you?
Julie: I must say I have a new respect for anyone who is juggling work and family. I try to get home by 6:30 in the evening and have maybe an hour with my daughter before it is time to start putting her to bed. Of course I want more time with her, but that is nothing compared with the parents who have to work shifts that cover all of their children’s waking hours.
I am fortunate. I have reliable child care, a stable income, and flexibility in my job when I need it. I have a new appreciation for moms—and dads—who have to make it work without those advantages.