What It's Like To Fight For Equal Pay When You're A Latina Construction Worker

ILLUSTRATION BY VERO ROMERO
In April, we paused to mark the day when women overall finally earned as much as white men did in 2016. Black women didn't catch up until July, and Native American women's pockets achieved equivalent fullness in September. And this week finally marks Latina Equal Pay Day, which means Hispanic women had to work an additional 306 days in order to earn the same salary their white male peers made in a single year.
These contrasts might seem like trite figures, until one considers, based on a projection from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, that Hispanic women may not achieve equal pay with white men until the year 2233. But this is about so much more than statistics — we wanted to hear first-person accounts of Latina women who are fighting against salary discrimination.
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Ahead, Refinery29 talked with Guadalupe Aguirre Gomez, 25, who works in construction and is fighting for better opportunities for herself and her fellow female construction workers.
What does your work entail?
"I do carpentry and painting, and I also work with plaster and compounds. After the apartments are finished and sold, I'm in charge of making any changes the client wants, like repainting or installing lighting. I also do other jobs, including installing doors, making plaster, and sealing holes where the electricians or plumbers have worked. I'm also tasked with doing some of the demolition work."
How long have you worked in construction?
"I started three years ago. When I accepted my first job offer in this industry, I was told that I would be doing demolition, but I ended up being put in charge of all the cleaning. After I started, I clarified what my role was supposed to be, and they said, 'Well, sweeping and mopping — women's work.' I wasn't okay with that. I had imagined that my work would be taking down walls, throwing away trash, shoveling, and that kind of thing.
"I stuck with it for two months, but after that, I began to finish up those tasks quickly and then going to see what the men who were doing real demolition work were doing. I learned how to use a hammer, how to remove nails, and how to wield the bigger tools for demolishing bathrooms, for example. I talked to the boss and told him that I didn't want to do cleaning work anymore. I didn't want to do the same chores I do at home. He said, 'Okay. I'll put you to work with the boys,' but then there was a new problem: He wanted to pay me the same salary for doing demolition work as I was making for the cleaning jobs."
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Well, sweeping and mopping — women's work.

How much was that?
"He paid me $100 day, and I worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I learned a lot, and I was excited about the work because I'm very self-motivated, and it's something I enjoy. He later reassigned me from demolition to pointing because some of the guys weren't showing up for the job. Pointing involves removing the crumbled cement from old walls and installing new material."
How did you find out that you were being underpaid?
"I asked my colleagues what their salary was. When they told me $180, I told them I'd have to talk to the boss because I was doing the same job [for less money]. They said, 'Well, the thing is, you came here to do the cleaning.' I said, 'Yes — but I’m not doing the cleaning work anymore. I'm doing the same job as you.'
"When I asked my boss, he said there wasn't enough money to increase my salary at the moment. I said, 'Thank you very much for the work, but I have to look for a different opportunity. I've learned a lot, and I know that I deserve a higher salary, and I'll find a place where people appreciate what I do.' And I started looking for a new job.
"At that time, I was doing all of this demolition work without a mask, without a helmet, and my only safety protection was the boots. Sometimes, I wore gloves. When I started looking for a new job, I was asked for my OSHA card. I had no idea what that was, and someone recommended I go the Worker's Justice Project. I took the OSHA course, stayed involved, and they eventually asked me to be part of the organization's leadership team. I've learned a lot, from the dangers I face on the job, to handling situations when a man says my only purpose is to do housework, or that I should go work in a restaurant.
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"There are actually many women working in construction — but most of the bosses are men. Where I work, there are at least 20 women doing construction jobs, but of those 20, I know 15 women do not receive a fair salary despite doing the same work as the men."
When you got the new job, did you talk about the salary with your new boss beforehand?
"Yes. By the time I started this job, I had become a health and safety liaison, and I was working with other colleagues on a program about salary earnings. I learned that the first thing you should do is to negotiate a price for the work you do. Know how many hours you will be expected work and how much they will pay you first. When they offered me this job, the first thing I asked was how many hours I would work. They said, you're going to work 40 hours, earn $50 per hour, and you're going to start as an assistant."
Do you feel like this is fair?
"I do. After I was on the job for a month as an assistant, my new boss told me he'd like me to start doing some painting, I said, 'Great. I'm happy to start painting and doing other things — but let's talk about money!'
"I explained that I was no longer going to be just an assistant — and that I wasn't going to just accept an extra $15 dollars [a day]. He laughed and said, 'Oh, you are a smart woman.' He sent me to the office to discuss my salary that same afternoon, and the secretary walked me through it. She explained what the increase would be, and how much of an increase I could expect each year, which I liked."
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He laughed and said, 'Oh, you are a smart woman.'

Not everyone would have the guts to stand up for themselves that way. Why is it important to you to do so?
"My goal is to dispel the fear that people have. I am a member of the Worker's Justice Project. I didn't really know my value in the past, and I did not know what OSHA was, but now I can explain what it is to other people. My Worker's Justice Project membership costs $25 and lasts for one year, and you also get access to OSHA training, a free immigration clinic, a workshop about your labor rights, and information about the proper salary that corresponds to your jobs, as well as also know how many hours you should work.
"There is a lot of wage theft in my industry, and we invite people to get informed about wage theft and their rights. We also hold an immigration clinic because it does not matter if you are undocumented — you still have rights and have the power to combat labor abuse, harassment, and wage theft."
What are some of the dangers of your work?
"Every day, there are bosses who send you to work without the right protection. I was one of the people who did demolitions without a mask or a helmet, and I often entered contaminated areas that didn't smell right, only to be told that our boss would bring masks the next day. It's dangerous. There are times I've felt feverish or had strong headaches, and my boss sent me to rest, but he never paid me for the days that I was sick. I have had partners get into accidents and be told by the manager that it was their fault for being careless, when the manager sent them to that area — and it is their duty to make sure their employees work in a safe place."
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What is your goal for the future in this industry?
"I work with more than 20 women, and I want to show them that women have a voice and that we can make a change. I invite them to attend the workshops and learn how to ask for a fair salary because women do the same work as men here. I have even heard that women are more detailed-oriented and often do a better-quality job — but we are paid much less. I make holes with hammers like a man. I climb just like a man. I take the same risks as the men. Why shouldn't I be paid the same salary as a man?
What do you want people to understand about this work, whether they are in construction or not?
"A lot of people [in my industry] fear their bosses threatening them about their legal status, maybe telling them, You are undocumented. You have no rights, and we don't have to pay you the same as us. These workers are being tricked because of their lack of information, and they end up locked into that cycle.
"My mission as part of Worker's Justice Project is to share my knowledge. We are here to make a change, and I share that message with my colleagues. We are family, and we can make a difference. We are the change we want to see in the world."
This interview has been translated, and condensed for clarity and length.
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