Back to News & Commentary

Liberty and Economic Justice For All

Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
Share This Page
February 12, 2009

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

Now more than ever, a family’s basic economic survival depends on pay equity. Without the ability to bring home every dollar rightfully earned without regard to gender, race, religion, age, or disability, there can be no economic justice for workers and true equality for all Americans.

President Obama probably best explained the importance of the fundamental fairness of equal pay to our country’s economic security when he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a bill that restores the right of employees to challenge ongoing pay discrimination. He noted at the White House:

So in signing this bill today, I intend to send a clear message: That making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone. That there are no second-class citizens in our workplaces, and that it’s not just unfair and illegal — but bad for business — to pay someone less because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion or disability. And that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory, or footnote in a casebook — it’s about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives: their ability to make a living and care for their families and achieve their goals.

Ultimately, though, equal pay isn’t just an economic issue for millions of Americans and their families, it’s a question of who we are — and whether we’re truly living up to our fundamental ideals. Whether we’ll do our part, as generations before us, to ensure those words put on paper some 200 years ago really mean something — to breathe new life into them with the more enlightened understandings of our time.

Today, thanks to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the right to challenge an unlawful pay gap in court has been restored. Unfortunately, the pay gap itself still exists — women still on average only earn 78 cents for every dollar that men earn for doing the same job. The numbers are even worse for women of color.

Certainly, we should stop and celebrate this historic passage, but we cannot slow down as we take the next step in finally closing this pay gap for good. Less money brought home and pocketed by discriminating employers is bad for businesses trying to do the right thing (PDF), bad for families trying to make ends meet, and ultimately, bad for our most important American ideals — work hard, play by the rules, and you will be treated fairly. Without the ability of an employee to be paid fairly as compared to her coworkers, there can be no economic justice, no advance in civil rights, and no level playing field for employers who do not pay discriminatorily low wages.

After all, during these belt-tightening times, what higher priority can there be than securing American workers’ paychecks and ensuring legitimate business competition?

Therefore, there is more work to be done and other protections must be passed. Over time, the law that was originally intended to ensure equal pay for equal work, the Equal Pay Act, has become less effective because of loopholes and weak remedies.

The Paycheck Fairness Act makes several changes to the 45-year old Equal Pay Act that strengthens its ability to combat wage discrimination. The bill puts the onus on employers to prove that wage differentials between men and women in the same position stem from facts other than sex. It provides protection against retaliation for employees who disclose their wages or ask about an employer’s wage policy. It also requires training for Equal Employment Opportunity Commission staff and technical assistance from the Department of Labor for employers seeking to address the wage gap. The bill also establishes a national award for employers who make substantial efforts to eliminate pay disparities between men and women in the workplace.

Last month, the House of Representatives sent a message to the Senate by overwhelmingly passing a paycheck fairness package that included both the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act bills. By passing both these bills, members of the House took a concrete step forward for wage discrimination safeguards after years of unwarranted rollbacks of basic wage protections.

Unfortunately, the Senate did not pick up the pay equity baton and pass the package. So our fight now moves to the Senate to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. It cannot happen fast enough. In these economic times, no senator should be reluctant to ensure that our nation’s workers receive every penny rightfully due them.

President Obama has indicated that if the Senate passes it, he will sign the Paycheck Fairness Act — then we will be able to take another important step towards showing that “justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory;” it is ultimately “a question of who we are.”

Learn More About the Issues on This Page