Blog of Rights

It’s Common Cents – Close the Wage Gap for Women

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 8:59pm

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

Does 22 cents mean much to you? It should, if like most Americans, you need every cent from your paycheck that you have rightfully earned.

Unfortunately, 45 years after the enactment of the Equal Pay Act – a law originally intended to secure equal pay for equal work – women who work full time still earn, on average, 78 cents for every dollar men earn. Over time, loopholes and weak remedies, further eroded by adverse court decisions, have made the Equal Pay Act less effective in combating wage discrimination. Not only has the Equal Pay Act been unable to close this gap, but each year, this ongoing wage disparity is marked on Equal Pay Day. Sadly, Equal Pay Day – this year April 28 – represents the day into 2009 that a woman must work to earn the same that a man earned in 2008.

But it’s not just cents we’re talking about. According to the congressional testimony of economist Evelyn Murphy (PDF), chronic wage discrimination can deprive a woman of between $700,000 and $2 million over her career. This figure grows when the loss of pension and social security benefits is included. The effects of wage discrimination follow its victims for a lifetime.

This makes the marking of Equal Pay Day much more than symbolic – it’s a call to protect the economic well-being of our families. Swift congressional action is needed to address this persistent and pernicious pay gap. In this economic climate, working families cannot afford to wait. The entire family feels the pain of wage discrimination. As unemployment rates skyrocket, families depend on women’s income more than ever, making pay equity even more critical to families’ economic security and the nation’s economic recovery.

At the beginning of this Congress, the House of Representatives passed, with bipartisan and overwhelming support, the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would provide much-needed updates to Equal Pay Act and tackle the most stubborn barriers to fair pay. The bill is pending in the Senate, and it’s critical it takes the bill up soon.

The Paycheck Fairness Act provides useful tools to employees to combat the wage gap, while also balancing the legitimate business needs of employers. This is why both the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce (PDF) and Business and Professional Women have endorsed it.

For example, the bill requires that employers demonstrate that wage differences between men and women holding the same position and doing the same work stem from criteria unrelated to their gender. Of course, employers may use factors such as merit, education and seniority to pay employees differently. But the bill strengthens the Equal Pay Act by indicating that those pay differences must be based on bonafide reasons other than the sex of their employees.

In addition, the bill protects employees against retaliation, but also protects a company’s legitimate need for confidentiality. Often, company policies prohibit employees from telling colleagues about their salaries. To address this barrier, the bill prohibits retaliation against workers who ask about a company’s wage practices or tells another employee their wage. However, to balance business’ need for confidentiality, employees with access to colleagues’ wage information in the course of their work, such as human resources employees, may still be prohibited from sharing that information.

The Paycheck Fairness bill also strikes a good balance between the needs of employees and employers in the remedies it provides for equal pay violations. The bill’s measured approach levels the playing field by ensuring that women can obtain the same remedies as employees who have suffered from discrimination on the basis of race or national origin. For the vast majority of employers who already follow our civil rights laws and don’t discriminate against their employees, the Paycheck Fairness Act imposes virtually no additional burdens. The bill’s goal is to merely give new tools to women only when bad-acting employers unlawfully pocket their wages.

At the same time, this legislation provides new tools that also directly benefit employers. It would require, for example, the U.S. Department of Labor to provide technical assistance to employers and recognize the achievements of businesses that work to address the wage gap. It also mandates that staff at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission receive additional training to better identify and handle wage disputes, which may help employers and employees before any litigation is necessary at all.

So, does 22 cents mean much to you? For the sake of our families’ future financial welfare, it’s time for the Senate to make pay equity a priority and to end the necessity to “celebrate” Equal Pay Day each year. It’s just common cents.

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