By Kathy Greenier, Women’s Rights Project Director
Today, April 9, 2013, is Equal Pay Day, which marks how far into 2013 a woman must work on average to earn what an average man earned in calendar year 2012.  And on June 10, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act of 1963. Over the past 50 years, the Equal Pay Act has been weakened by adverse court rulings that have created loopholes, limited remedies and resulted in protection that is far less effective than Congress originally intended.  Half a century has passed and women still earn on average only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.  Women of color fare even worse – in 2011, African-American women only earned approximately 64 cents, and Latinas only 55 cents, on average for each dollar earned by white men.
In addition to outright wage discrimination, the disparity in average earnings persists in part because women continue to lack full access to traditional male occupations and are steered into lower-paying and less desirable sectors.  Women are also disproportionately represented in lower-paying and lesser-power jobs within sectors. Finally, traditional “women’s work,” including, for example, teaching and nursing, remains undervalued in the market compared to work requiring similar skill, education and training done in historically male dominated jobs.  While not all of these factors can be addressed in legislation, a strong Equal Pay Act can help wring the overt wage discrimination out of the system.
At his State of the Union address in January, President Obama asked Congress "to declare that women should earn a living equal to their efforts and finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year."  We ask the same of Congress.  The Paycheck Fairness Act would update the Equal Pay Act of 1963, protecting employees in all workplaces.  It closes the loopholes and strengthens the weakened remedies that have made the Equal Pay Act less effective in combating wage discrimination by making the following changes:
  • Requiring employers to demonstrate that wage differentials between men and women holding the same position and doing the same work stem from factors other than sex.
  • Prohibiting retaliation against workers who inquire about their employers’ wage practices or disclose their own wages.
  • Permitting reasonable comparisons between employees within clearly defined geographical areas to determine fair wages.
  • Strengthening penalties for equal pay violations.  The bill’s measured approach levels the playing field by ensuring that women can obtain the same remedies as persons subject to discrimination on the basis of race or national origin.
  • Authorizing additional training for staff at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to better identify and handle wage disputes.
In addition to urging Congress to enact reforms, the ACLU is calling on President Obama to issue an executive order prohibiting retaliation against federal contract employees for discussing their wages. While federal legislation is still needed to protect employees in all workplaces, this is an important first step that will reach the approximately 26 million workers employed by federal contractors – which is over 20 percent of the civilian workforce.
Retaliation for wage disclosure is a major obstacle preventing women from achieving equal pay for equal work. Women often can’t even find out if they’re being paid less than their male co-workers because many employers have rules that punish employees for voluntarily sharing wage information with their colleagues. Allowing workers to discuss their salaries, without fear of losing their jobs, will help women to take steps to ensure they are being treated equally. Critics of pay equity initiatives often say that part of the gap in earnings between women and men exists because women just don’t ask for equal pay.  It is up to employers to create a work environment that supports women so they can and do ask.
Last Congress, the Paycheck Fairness Act fell just short in the Senate. Neither of Virginia’s Senators co-sponsored this important legislation and only 3 members of the Virginia delegation in the House of Representatives did.  Ask your members of Congress to co-sponsor the Paycheck Fairness Act today.
An executive order and passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act are particularly necessary in today’s difficult economy where approximately 40 percent of women are the primary breadwinners in their households. In this economic climate, we need concrete and immediate action to improve the economic security of working families. Pay equity is critical -- to families’ economic security  and to the nation's economic recovery.  Fifty years is too long to wait for equal pay for equal work.  Now is the time to end wage discrimination once and for all.