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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 3/31/09

Paying Attention to Fair Pay

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Pay Equity Day being April 28th, it seems appropriate to point out that women have yet to reach parity in their paychecks.  More than 40 years after President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law in 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964) made it illegal to discriminate in wages and pay on the basis of sex, race, color and national origin, women working full time, year round, still earn about 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. 
Given today’s economic crisis, this is particularly worrying.  Women tend to suffer greater job loss and greater loss in wages during economic downturns, especially if they are minority women.  Even in good times, while women have made significant gains in education, the gender gap remains something of a fixture in the U.S. workplace, as the American Association of University Women (AAUW) pointed out in its 2007 study, “Behind the Pay Gap.”
This study revealed that just one year out of college, women working full time already earned less than their male colleagues, even when they worked in the same field.  Ten years after graduation, the pay gap had widened.  Even after controlling for variables such as occupation, hours, parenthood and other factors that can affect earnings, the research indicated that one-quarter of the pay gap remained unexplained and was likely due to sex discrimination.
According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), in 2006 the median annual earnings of women ages 15 and older working full-time and year-round were $32,515, compared to $42,261 for their male counterparts. Median income for African-American women that year was $30,352 compared to $48,420 for white, non-Hispanic men while the median for Hispanic women was $25,198.  The NWLC also found that there is an earnings gap between women and men across a wide spectrum of occupations; in some occupations women have actually lost ground; as women age the wage gap widens for them; and there is not a single state in which women have gained economic equality with men.
Recent examples of pay discrimination cases include the largest employment discrimination suit ever filed:  Female employees of Wal-Mart sued the company for paying women less than men for similar work and using an old boy’s network for promotions that prevented women’s advancement.  One woman reported that when she complained of the pay disparity, she was told that women would never make as much as men because “God made Adam first.” 
The recently passed Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was a milestone in pay equity legislation.  Ledbetter had worked at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company for 19 years when she sued the company upon learning that for much of her career male counterparts had been paid more for doing the same work.  The Supreme Court agreed that Ledbetter had been discriminated against but ruled that she should have filed her suit within 180 days of her first unfair paycheck, not 180 days from learning of the difference in pay.  Then-Senator Barack Obama co-sponsored a bill that would have given employees more time to file suit.  Known as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, it passed in Congress in January.
Now the Paycheck Fairness Act is pending in Congress.  Ledbetter has said that passing the Ledbetter bill without passing this Act is like giving someone a nail but not a hammer. While the Ledbetter law preserves the right to seek legal redress, the Paycheck Fairness Act provides the tools necessary to give the law bite and provides incentives for businesses to follow the law in the first place.
The Paycheck Fairness Act essentially updates the 45-year old Equal Pay Act.  It is a comprehensive bill that, among other things, would empower women to negotiate for equal pay, and would strengthen federal education and enforcement efforts. The bill would also deter wage discrimination by strengthening penalties for equal pay violations and by prohibiting retaliation against workers who ask about employers’ wage practices or disclose their own wages. As one AAUW spokesperson put it, “The tandem of both bills is critical because the Ledbetter bill restores lost ground, while the Paycheck Fairness Act actually gives more teeth to the law and will provide better technical assistance and incentives to employers to follow the law in the first place.”
In an interview with The American Prospect last year, Lilly Ledbetter was asked what she says to people who claim that the wage gap is not due to discrimination but to women choosing lower-paid work and dropping out of the work force to raise children.  Her answer: “No!  No, no, no, no.  I have had my eyes opened … It’s not right, and it’s high time for women to be paid equal.”
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Elayne Clift is a writer,lecturer, workshop leader and activist. She is senior correspondent for Women's Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and Brattleboro (VT) Commons and a contributor to various publications internationally. (more...)
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