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Equality in Our Pay Envelopes

Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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June 10, 2009

Today marks the 46th anniversary of President Kennedy’s signing of the Equal Pay Act of 1963. That historic act signified our nation’s commitment to ensuring that women are not paid less than men for equal work. Upon signing the bill, President Kennedy proclaimed that the bill “affirms our determination that when women enter the labor force they will find equality in their pay envelope.” Indeed, the bill helped women make significant strides towards equality in the workforce. Unfortunately, over time, loopholes and weak remedies have made this historic law less effective than Congress originally intended. Therefore, there is no more fitting way to commemorate this historic anniversary than to push for passage of S. 182, the Paycheck Fairness Act, a necessary update to the Equal Pay Act.

There is no doubt that updates to improve the effectiveness of the Equal Pay Act’s protections are needed. Forty-six years after President Kennedy signed the Act, women, on average, continue to earn only 78 cents for every dollar earned by men — that’s only 18 cents more on the dollar than when President Kennedy signed the bill in 1963. For women of color, the progress has been even slower. This bill would enable President Kennedy’s vision to be fully realized, albeit several decades late.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would give employees legal tools to close the wage gap that has held women’s economic progress back for so long. For example, the bill would require employers to demonstrate that disparities in pay between men and women working the same job result from factors other than sex. It would also prohibit retaliation against employees who inquire about their employers’ wage practices or disclose their own pay to their colleagues. Furthermore, the Act would deter discrimination by strengthening the penalties for equal pay violations and would authorize additional training of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission staff to better identify and address pay violations. Through these steps, the Paycheck Fairness Act would allow our nation to finally move forward in closing the unlawful wage gap.

Last January, the House of Representatives recognized the need to update the Equal Pay Act and overwhelmingly passed the Paycheck Fairness Act with bipartisan support. Recently, Senators Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) announced that they will take the lead on the fight to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. Over 31 senators and counting are cosponsors. The bill now has more cosponsors than in any other previous Congress. There is momentum, but more work is necessary. The 46th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act is a good reminder that the Senate needs to follow the House’s example of working to finally secure equal pay for equal work for all American workers.

In 1963, President Kennedy recognized upon signing the Equal Pay Act that “our economy today depends upon women in the labor force.” This is even truer today. During this financial crisis, women are a critical part of the economic engines that will drive this nation’s recovery. However, under no circumstances should women, single-mother households, and families dependent on two wage earners have to struggle to live on less than they rightfully earn. The impact of these pay disparities is felt even more during these times of economic hardship. Now more than ever, passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act is essential not only for women, but for all working families.

Let us celebrate the 46th anniversary of President Kennedy’s signing of the Equal Pay Act by pushing for the passage of S. 182, the Paycheck Fairness Act. Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act is the only way we can fulfill President Kennedy’s assurance that American women will “find equality in their pay envelope.”

— Deborah J. Vagins, Legislative Counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office, and Rachel Marshall, 2009 Summer Law Clerk, ACLU Washington Legislative Office

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