On this Women’s Equality Day – the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote – I’m struck by all the ways in which women have yet to attain equality. Also, because this August 26 comes two days before the 50th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I’m reflecting on all the ways in which Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of racial equality and social justice remains a dream unrealized. As we celebrate the major changes that have occurred in the United States since 1963, and recall the sense of community that permeated the Washington Mall that hot summer day, I am saddened by the fact that African American women still earn only 64 cents for every dollar earned by white men, women are still under-represented in the higher paid male-dominated occupations or pushed out when they become pregnant, and domestic workers – the vast majority of whom are women of color – are still excluded from basic labor law protections such as overtime.
In addition to being the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, which President Kennedy signed to ensure that women would be paid the same as men for the same work. To celebrate that half-century mark, on June 10, 2013, fifteen national, regional and state-based women’s rights organizations from around the country came together and launched the Equal Pay Today! Campaign. The EPT! Platform identifies five areas of employer practices that contribute to the gender wage gap. To ensure that women earn 100 cents for every dollar earned by men, we must end the following employment practices: less pay for the same job, occupational segregation, pay secrecy, pregnancy discrimination and lack of paid sick/family leave, and wage theft/minimum wage violations.
The EPT! Campaign is working to end these discriminatory employment practices by pushing for policy change at both the federal and state level. For example, the federal Paycheck Fairness Act will close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act and prohibit retaliation against employees who discuss their wages. Similarly, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will require employers to make the same accommodations for pregnant workers that they make for other employees who are similarly temporarily unable to perform all aspects of their jobs. At the same time, we are working with advocates in states around the country to push for legislative and executive branch action to address the gender wage gap and bringing litigation under state laws that are more protective than their federal counterparts.
A growing number of states provide greater protections for pregnant and nursing women in the workplace. Under Connecticut’s pregnancy accommodation law, employers are required to, among other things, make a “reasonable effort to transfer a pregnant employee to any suitable temporary position.” Armed with this state law, Annie Balcastro was able to fight back against a police department policy that effectively pushed her out of the workplace when she was pregnant. An officer in Wallingford’s Police Department, Annie requested a light-duty accommodation during her pregnancy. Under the Wallingford Police Department policy, police officers could take paid leave for on-duty injuries, while pregnant officers had to work full duty or go onto unpaid leave. In 2012, with the help of the ACLU, the ACLU of Connecticut, and the law firm Outten and Golden LLP, Officer Balcastro filed a complaint against the Wallingford Police Department claiming that the Department refused to give her a light-duty assignment or transfer her to a suitable temporary position, forcing her to take unpaid leave during her pregnancy instead. On May 3, 2013, a settlement was reached on Annie’s behalf with the Department.
Similarly, the Colorado Workplace Accommodations for Nursing Mothers Act safeguards a woman’s right to continue breastfeeding when returning to work after having a baby. Relying on this state law, Heather Burgbacher, a technology teacher and coordinator at Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen, in Evergreen, CO, stood up to her employer after she lost her job for exercising her right to pump breast milk at work. Heather had taught at the school for almost five years and had pumped breast milk at work after a previous pregnancy with no need to miss any classroom time. However, when Heather’s second baby was born, her back-to-back class schedule required her to miss 10 minutes at both ends of her short break-time, at the end of one class and the beginning of the next. During that time she had arranged for another teacher to supervise her students while they completed classroom assignments. This arrangement had worked smoothly for several months until suddenly one day she was told by her supervisor that she had to rearrange her pumping schedule. When she informed her supervisor that she could not physically do that because women who breastfeed must pump at regular intervals throughout the day, she was advised to consider switching her baby to formula. When Heather responded that she had a right to pump at work, she was terminated. In September 2012, the ACLU, the ACLU of Colorado, and the law firm Killmer, Lane and Newman, LLP reached a settlement on Heather’s behalf with the Jefferson County public charter school in the first public settlement of a legal challenge brought under the 2008 CO statute.
In New York, a broad coalition of advocates including the New York Civil Liberties Union is working hard to pass the Women’s Equality Act, a 10-point legislative proposal that will advance women’s equality in the workplace and in society. The WEA would stop pregnancy push-out in NY by making it clear that employers must grant reasonable accommodations for pregnancy-related conditions. (It also closes a host of other loopholes in state law extending protections against sexual harassment in the workplace, helping to achieve pay equity, enhancing the safety of domestic violence survivors, and increasing protections against discrimination in employment, housing, credit, and lending.) Julie Desantis-Mayer is one of those women who was pushed-out of her job when she became pregnant. Julie had worked as a package driver at UPS for nearly ten years before becoming pregnant. Because her job is physically demanding, requiring her to deliver heavy packages for up to 14 hours per day, she requested a light-duty position when she became pregnant. She knew that UPS routinely grants this kind of temporary adjustment to workers with injuries and other temporary conditions that prevent them from lifting heavy packages. Yet her employer refused, and instead forced her out onto unpaid leave for the rest of her pregnancy. Julie filed a complaint of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission protesting this treatment, represented by the ACLU and the New York Civil Liberties Union. But she shouldn’t have had to; Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978 to clarify Title VII, which was passed in 1964, to make sure that workers like Julie are not pushed out of the workplace when they become pregnant. However, employers have ignored the law and many courts have allowed companies to treat pregnant workers worse than other workers with disabilities or temporary injuries who are given minor accommodations that enable them to stay on the job. Around the country, women are fighting back against this kind of discrimination by supporting state laws like New York’s Women’s Equality Act and federal laws like the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to address the problem.
Because most American women will become pregnant at some point during their careers and many of those will return after giving birth and need to pump breast milk at work, requiring companies to keep those employees on the job applying the same policies and accommodations they use to keep other temporarily injured or disabled employees at work is not only fair, it’s common sense. Further, providing paid family and sick leave to employees with caregiving responsibilities enables parents to both earn an income to support their families and provide the care and support their children or elderly parents require when they are sick. For this reason, the Equal Pay Today! Campaign is urging the governors in all 50 states to support policy changes needed to ensure that women will no longer suffer pay reductions due to pregnancy and caregiving responsibilities. We also call on all governors to take executive action or propose legislative changes to end employer practices that result in less pay for the same job, job segregation, retaliation against workers for discussing their pay, and wage theft.
Join the Equal Pay Today! Campaign and help close the gender wage gap in your state! To celebrate Women’s Equality Day, we are hosting a Twitter Chat on August 26 at 1:00 EST using the hashtag #EqualPay. Also, join us at 2:00 EST for a Thunderclap here.