In Massachusetts, Hispanic women who clean offices and houses for a living make just 54 cents on the dollar compared with what male janitors make. Compared with their Hispanic male counterparts, Latina cleaners make just 59 percent.
New research from the University of Massachusetts Boston shows that the already yawning gender wage gap becomes a chasm in lower-income jobs, particularly for Hispanic women.
Many Hispanic workers are immigrants who tend to have limited education and English skills, and work in low-wage jobs, which could partly explain the disparity. But when Hispanic women are compared with Hispanic men working the same low-wage jobs, the inequity persists.
"A lot of Latina women are concentrated in low-wage jobs, and a lot of low-wage jobs have significant gender- and race-based disparities, and Latina women seem to be consistently at the bottom," said Ann Bookman, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMass Boston, who analyzed median annual earnings of full-time Massachusetts workers in four occupational categories, using data from the 2013 American Community Survey.
The wage disparity, she noted, "shows the complexity of this intersection between gender bias and ethnic bias."
Among cashiers and customer service workers, whose median pay tops out at $38,000 a year in Massachusetts, women make 88 percent of what men make, according to the analysis. But when wages are broken down by race, a further divide emerges. White women make 83 percent of what white men make in the field, while Hispanic women are at just 56 percent of their male equivalents.
The research also revealed an unexpected statistic: Black women's wages slightly exceeded those of black men among retail workers and showed a smaller divide than between white or Hispanic workers in other occupations.
Bookman said she plans to delve further into the black wage gap. But the first phase of her research lasered in on Hispanic workers.
Between her $9-an-hour job at Popeyes and her work at a homeless shelter, where she makes $10 an hour, Rita Diaz works more than 60 hours a week. Diaz, 26, of Dorchester, is trying to save money for college but said she has encountered gender discrimination on her search for a better job. "Sometimes they say, 'No, I'm looking for a man,' " she said.
Statewide, women earn 81 cents on the dollar compared with men, some of which can be explained by factors such as career choices and time off to care for children. But the divide that remains is widely attributed to bias, whether conscious or unconscious, and there is a growing movement around the country to shrink it.
Boston has launched an unprecedented attempt to equalize salaries, starting by analyzing wages by gender at 60 local companies. At the State House, a bill is under consideration that would prohibit employers from seeking job candidates' salary histories, and clarify an existing statute that employers must provide equal pay for comparable work. This could mean cafeteria workers, who are often women, would make the same as school janitors, who are usually men.
But business groups say the proposed legislation would lead to all employees being paid the same regardless of performance, and breed a "culture of mediocrity," according to Associated Industries of Massachusetts. The answer to helping low-income women lies not in legislation but in job training, said AIM spokesman Christopher Geehern.
"Give those women the ability to create websites or program for big data and send them into the Massachusetts economy," he said.
The earnings gap for women of color is wider than it is for women as a whole, and for Latina women it is "egregious," Bookman said: 50 cents on the dollar across all occupations statewide, compared with white men.
Pay discrimination often goes undetected, but at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington earlier this year, the US Department of Labor found that 38 female housekeepers, many of them from Haiti, were being paid 70 cents less an hour than their male counterparts, adding up to a $1,500 annual disparity.
At companies that have studied their gender wage gaps, a major cause appears to be the abundance of men in senior positions.
Arcelia Curiel, 42, who is originally from Mexico, has worked mornings as a cashier at a Lowell school cafeteria for 10 years and cleaned offices at night for seven years, but has had few opportunities to get ahead.
"Whenever they need to promote someone, they bring someone from the outside," she said, speaking through a translator. "They don't really offer us a chance to move up."
This pay disparity is particularly damaging for mothers, Bookman said. In Massachusetts, she noted, women are the primary breadwinners in slightly more than half of all households with children under 18. And of those female breadwinners, 49 percent are single mothers.
Doly Castro, 30, originally from Guatemala, came to the United States for the opportunity to better provide for herself and her daughter, but is struggling to get by.
She once signed up for an English course but couldn't attend because of work and family responsibilities. Half of her income goes to pay for her $900-a month Dorchester apartment, which she is fighting to stay in after the building was sold. Both potential employers and landlords have questioned her dependability because she is a single mother, she said, but what they don't understand is that providing for her daughter is what drives her.
"My own life, maybe that didn't work out," she said through a translator, "but hers I think will."
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.