By Katherine Greenier, Director, Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project, ACLU of Virginia

Today is Equal Pay Day, which marks how far into 2012 women, on average, must work to be paid what men were paid in just 2011.  Nearly 50 years after the Equal Pay Act, women still make only 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man.
The figures are even more dismal for women of color. In 2010, African-American women earned approximately 62 cents and Latinas only 54 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. It’s time to fix the pay gap.
One shocking obstacle women face is disclosure of their own wages to co-workers. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, nearly half of all workers are either forbidden or strongly discouraged from discussing their pay with colleagues. Pay secrecy means that there is no way for many women to even know they are being paid less than their male co-workers. In fact, they can be fired for trying to do something about it.
This injustice is particularly troubling in today’s difficult economy in which approximately 40% of women are acting as the primary breadwinners in their households, and more than 60% are breadwinners or co-breadwinners.  We need concrete and immediate action to improve the economic security of working families.  Pay equity is critical not only to families’ economic security, but also to the nation's economic recovery.
Chronic wage discrimination can deprive a woman of between $700,000 and $2 million over her career. Allowing workers to discuss their salaries without fear of losing their jobs will help women to know whether or not they are being treated equally.  Federal protections are needed to prohibit retaliation against workers who ask about their employers’ wage practices or disclose their own wages.
Fortunately, there is a legislative solution: The Paycheck Fairness Act. This bill would take steps to effectively address wage discrimination and eliminate loopholes that have undermined the Equal Pay Act’s effectiveness, including barring retaliation against workers who disclose their own wages to coworkers.
In the 111th Congress, this important legislation passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives, but fell just two votes short of moving forward in the Senate.
It was the closest we have ever been, so we can’t stop fighting for fair pay now.
There’s also an executive branch solution. For over 70 years, presidents of both parties have used the power of executive orders to protect employees who work in companies that contract with the federal government.
An executive order from President Obama could ban federal contracting employers from discriminating or retaliating against employees because they asked about, discussed or disclosed wages.  This would affect approximately 26 million workers, which is nearly 22 percent of the civilian workforce. This step can lead the way for expanded protections for all workers.
Overwhelming majorities of Americans support federal policies that give women more tools to get fair pay in the workplace, including majorities of self-identified Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.
Six states already ban retaliation for wage disclosure: California, Illinois, Michigan, Maine, Colorado, and Vermont. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, these states together comprise approximately 22% of the entire U.S. population, meaning approximately 1 in 5 Americans have state anti-retaliation protections for wage disclosure. The experiences of these states should be instructive as support for an executive order since some of these laws have been in effect for decades, and have not prevented these states from competing economically.
Please join us in saying, “we can’t wait for fair pay,” and demand action from our elected representatives:
Encourage President Obama to sign an executive order prohibiting retaliation against federal contract employees for discussing their wages.
Ask your members of Congress to co-sponsor the Paycheck Fairness Act today.