A Labor Day message: Economic security is very much a women’s issue.

Connecticut was among the first states to enact Labor Day legislation in 1887, a full seven years before the U.S. Congress made it a federal holiday. Labor Day was created to recognize trade unions, secure workers’ safety and generally honor the contributions of laborers everywhere.

And yet, more than 100 years after its passage, how well do we, as a society, really honor our workers?

A national protest movement is shedding light on the paltry wages and poor practices of one of our fastest-growing industries: food services. Workers in Connecticut and across the nation are striking for a minimum wage of $15 an hour – more than double what most states require and significantly higher than Connecticut’s $8.25 per hour. Is this a reasonable demand? Two recent studies say it is.

Recently, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the rest of the economy shed jobs, restaurants continued to add them – with a projected total of more than 860,000 new jobs expected to be added by 2020. Women, not surprisingly, constitute more than half of food service employees.

According to a new report released by a consortium of women’s research and advocacy groups, including the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, MomsRising and the National Women’s Law Center, among others, the industry’s lack of paid sick leave, weak salaries and poor access to child care conspire to erode women’s economic security. (Read the report, “The Third Shift…” here: http://rocunited.org/files/2013/07/ChildCare_execsummary_july-1.pdf.)

This economic hit to women hurts all of us, because it reduces spending power, causes a drain on our overtaxed “safety nets” and plunges more women into poverty in their old age. But in a still faltering economy, are women food service workers asking too much?

In a study we conducted last year with the Washington-based Wider Opportunities for Women they most definitely are not.

Using the University of Connecticut’s demographic data, the Basic Economic Security Tables (BEST) report shows that, depending on where workers live in the state, how many children they have, whether they have employer-sponsored benefits, and whether they have a dual-income household, Connecticut workers need a median of $17 per hour just for basic necessities and to build enough assets so that, should a medical or job emergency arise, they do not become dependent on others. (Read the BEST Report here: http://ctpcsw.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/basic-economic-security-tables-index-for-connecticut-2012-2.pdf.)

Three-fourths of single parents in Connecticut are women, and more than half (56.1 percent) are in the labor force – many in low-wage service jobs. Additionally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 41.2 percent of female-headed households in our state with children under the age of 5 live below the poverty line. It’s clear that economic security is very much a women’s issue.

So this year, those of us fortunate enough to have jobs that offer a day of rest might pause to remember those workers in low-paying service industries with workplace policies and wages that make it impossible for women to rise to the middle class.

After all, this weekend, as we nip into a MacDonald’s on our way to the beach with our kids, chances are the friendly female face at the window has left her own children home and is barely managing to keep her head above water.

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