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The Paycheck Fairness Act: It's Time to Stop the Catch 22

Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
Georgeanne M. Usova,
Former Senior Legislative Counsel
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June 4, 2012

Last week, Terri Kelly testified before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee about pay discrimination. In her nine year career as a pharmaceutical sales rep, Kelly was extremely successful—one of the best-performing reps in the nation. But despite all her hard work, she knew that she was being paid far less than another employee hired around the same time and in the same position: her husband. Because her employer had a policy in place prohibiting employees from either asking about or sharing information about their wages, Kelly was only able to find out that she was being discriminated against because she happened to be married to her coworker.

Terri Kelly’s situation is unique, but the pay secrecy policy enforced at her workplace is not. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, nearly half of American workplaces either discourage or specifically prohibit employees from discussing pay practices. That’s one of the biggest challenges in fighting pay discrimination. For most women, it’s nearly impossible to find out whether discrimination is occurring.

Imagine the Catch 22 women are in. Workers often remain in the dark because of these prohibitions. So if you are already worried about possible discrimination in your paycheck, you have to risk getting no paycheck – in other words, you have to risk getting fired – if you want to try and do something about it.

Stories like Kelly’s have spurred growing concern in both chambers about women’s economic security. Last month, members of the Senate held a press conference to address the critical issue of equal pay, and now the Senate is moving quickly to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which is scheduled for a cloture vote on the Senate floor tomorrow.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would put an end to pay secrecy policies like the one Kelly faced, by prohibiting retaliation against employees who inquire about their employers’ wage practices or disclose their own pay to colleagues. It would also make a number of other long-needed reforms to the Equal Pay Act to close loopholes that have made the law less effective over time, such as requiring employers to demonstrate that disparities in pay between men and women working the same job result from factors other than sex, and strengthening penalties for equal pay violations.

And there’s no question that it’s the Paycheck Fairness Act is needed. Nearly 50 years after passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, women still make only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. The disparity is even greater for women of color. Over time, those lost cents on the dollar add up to serious money: for Kelly, the gap between her salary and her husband’s salary added up to a loss of $65,000 in income over the course of nine years.

The legislation passed the House of Representatives with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2009, but fell just two votes short of moving forward in the Senate in 2010, in spite of majority support from Senators. In 2012, it’s time for the Senate to finally seize the opportunity to pass this historic bill to help ensure economic security for millions of American families who simply can’t wait any longer to take home the pay they have rightfully earned.

Tomorrow, the Senate will vote on cloture for the Paycheck Fairness Act. You can act now by urging your Senator to vote YES on the Paycheck Fairness Act today.

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