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A Sad Day for Equal Pay, But Not the End

Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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November 19, 2010

In a disappointing stand against women’s equality, on Wednesday the Senate voted 58-41 against cloture for the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 3772), stopping the bill from moving forward and effectively denying women the necessary legal tools to fight for equal pay. Although a majority of the Senate supported this measure, it fell just two votes shy of the 60 votes necessary to defeat a filibuster, dooming the bill for this Congress. Unfortunately, a minority of the Senate was able to successfully block an opportunity to afford women the most basic of protections — a safety net against egregious discrimination in the workplace. The American Civil Liberties Union cochaired a national coalition of civil rights, women’s rights, labor, faith-based and business groups, all of whom strongly supported the Paycheck Fairness Act as a vital protection against gender-based pay discrimination.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would have made several key updates to the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a law which has not fulfilled its promise of closing the wage gap. The Equal Pay Act requires that men and women be given “equal pay for equal work.” Unfortunately, the law has not been able to achieve its promise of closing the wage gap because of limited enforcement tools and inadequate remedies. In 2009, women working full-time, year-round were paid 77 cents on average for every dollar paid to men — which, on average, translates to a loss of over $10,000 a year. These lost wages means months of food bills, mortgage payments, rent and thousands of gallons of gas, making an already difficult economic time for American families even worse.

The Senate had the historic opportunity to correct this inequality and make a real difference in the lives of millions of American women by voting to support the Paycheck Fairness Act, but instead the bill became a victim of the partisan gridlock that has, most recently, plagued the 111th Congress.

But the gridlock in the Senate on this bill is not reflective of its constituents. In a poll of registered voters, 84 percent — Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike — said they support such a bill. In addition, the Paycheck Fairness Act already passed the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2009, and this administration has been unwavering in its support of the legislation. President Obama , Vice President Biden, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, and other senior members of the administration have been strong supporters of the bill. In addition, reports from the Middle Class Task Force, the National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force, and the White House National Economic Council all underscored the need for the Paycheck Fairness Act as an important step toward the economic security of women and our nation’s families.

Most recently, the administration issued a Statement of Administration Policy in support of the bill in advance of the cloture vote on Wednesday. After the vote, President Obama gathered the lead advocates on the bill to meet with him, Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President and Chair of the White House Council for Women and Girls; Melody Barnes, the Director of the Domestic Policy Council; Tina Tchen, Director of the Office of Public Engagement and Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls; and Lilly Ledbetter, a tireless advocate for fair pay, to discuss next steps in the fight for this important legislation. He emphasized the need to continue the fight for equal pay and his faith in the fact that the people support it on a bipartisan basis, even if the Senate did not.

President Barack Obama, speaking to equal pay advocates including Lilly Ledbetter, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House after the Paycheck Fairness Act vote on November 17, 2010. The author is at the far head of the table. Source: Official White House Photo.

The Senate had a chance with the Paycheck Fairness Act to correct decades of discrimination and ensure the economic survival of women workers and the millions of American families who rely on their wages. It should have been an easy vote for senators. Instead, it is a devastating blow for women and families all across America that a bill as critical as the Paycheck Fairness Act did not receive an up or down vote in the Senate because a minority of senators have blocked the bill from moving forward. In the face of its widespread support, letting legislation that finally would afford women equal pay for their work, fail on a procedural vote, is especially tragic.

But this is not the end of the fight. There is too much at stake to stop the work while families are struggling to make ends meet. People will continue to make their voices heard, our allies in Congress will continue the effort, the advocates will never give up, and the President himself made it clear that despite Wednesday’s vote, “my Administration will continue to fight for a woman’s right to equal pay for equal work.”

(Originally posted on Huffington Post.)