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Hispanic women struggle with just over half the pay of men

Liliana Rodriguez is not by nature a complainer. A single mother of four, the 36-year-old Grand Rapids resident tries to appreciate what she has.

“I am content with what God gives me,” she said.

And for now, that's work in a local cereal factory that pays $10 an hour. It's more than she made in a series of previous jobs. She'd work longer hours if she could, but the hours can be irregular – 40 hours one week, 30 hours the next. That's because she is employed through a temporary work agency and not the factory itself.

Each week when she cashes her check, Rodriguez calculates in minute detail just far it will go toward meeting household expenses. If one of her children needs new shoes, she must budget for that. Food stamps help, but money is always tight.

“I need to plan for every single thing,” she said through a Spanish interpreter with the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, a nonprofit social service and translation agency in Grand Rapids.

Rodriguez appears to have plenty of company in Michigan, given that Hispanic women working full time earn about 57 cents on the dollar compared to all working males in Michigan, according to a report on wages in 2013 released earlier this year by the Washington D.C.-based National Women's Law Center. The wage gap large is larger than that for African American women in Michigan, who earn 69 cents on the dollar compared to males.

Overall, women in Michigan earn 75 cents on the dollar compared to a man.

MORE COVERAGE: In paychecks, Michigan women have a long way to go, baby

Sara Proano, language services manager for the Hispanic Center, attributes the wage gap for Hispanic women to several factors, including lack of education, language and cultural barriers and the disproportionate share of Hispanic women in low-paying service sector or factory work and low-paying agricultural jobs.

“They are low-paying jobs but they can very, very hard,” Proano said. “It can be very difficult for a (Hispanic) woman to be the sole provider of a family. You have to be very creative to make it work.”

According to Kate Gallagher Robbins, a researcher for the National Women’s Law Center, Hispanic women working full time in Michigan in 2011-2013 had median earnings of $27,999, in 2013 inflation-adjusted dollars, compared with $33,531 for Hispanic men and $51,397 for white men. African-American women working full time in Michigan earned $34,027, compared with $36,870 for African American men.

There is a corresponding gap in high school dropout rates that would seem to explain part of the income gap for minority women. According to the Michigan Department of Education, Hispanic women in Michigan had a high school dropout rate of 15.3 percent in 2011, compared with 9 percent for all female students and 6.7 percent for white female students. African American women had a dropout rate of 15.1 percent. Hispanic men had an even higher dropout rate of 21.6 percent, as did African American men, at 24 percent.

Rodriguez has no high school degree. Her inability to speak English further inhibits her range of options for work.

In the past few years, she has worked as an agricultural laborer, in a landscape nursery, at a commercial laundry and at a West Michigan mink farm. She never made as much as $10 an hour in any of those jobs.

At the laundry job, which involved repetitive, arduous folding and lifting of clothes, she learned from other workers what the words “tendon” and “carpel tunnel” mean.

“I would lie in bed at night and my shoulders were numb,” she recalled.

Her work at the mink farm – where the animals were kept in cages and killed to make fur coats – brings back memories she would prefer to forget. She said she was bitten in the hands and wrists on numerous occasions as she transferred mink from one cage to another.

“It was horrible,” she said.

She said she is grateful to have left that job behind.

“I am not complaining,” she said. “I know there are people suffering more than I do.”

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