Updated June 23, 2011
Equal pay in America needed to be put back on track after the Supreme Court’s devastating Ledbetter v. Goodyear ruling, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act answered that call – as the first major milestone of the Obama Administration. Still, this new law cannot on its own do the job of eliminating the wage gap. Additional tools are necessary to bring equality to the workplace and prevent further disturbing incidents like the one that befell Lilly Ledbetter. Especially in this unsteady economy, people who are struggling to pay their bills shouldn’t have to worry about whether they are being discriminated against in the workplace. We need the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Women continue to face wage disparities that unfairly reduce their income. Some assert that the wage gap is merely a myth. The right-wing National Center for Policy Analysis once stunningly stated that it was simply “about women making discriminating choices in the labor market.” But the wage gap is very real. According to an April 2011 National Women’s Law Center report, women who work full-time, year-round are paid only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. This means that the average female earns almost $11,000 less per year. The picture only gets worse among racial and ethnic minorities.
Closing the wage gap is good for the family. Given the importance of women’s earnings to a family’s economic security, eliminating the wage gap would have positive implications for many American families. More and more depend on women’s earning for financial stability. In 2009, over 1.5 million married couples with children relied exclusively on women’s earnings.
Women should not be held accountable for fundamental workplace realities that make it difficult to discover pay information. Pay information is often confidential; therefore, employees are rarely able to uncover such discrimination and file claims quickly. In addition, fear of retaliation may make an employee reluctant to raise a pay discrimination claim before he or she has had the time to build up a strong work record to prove the retaliatory nature of an adverse employment decision. The technicality of time unfairly ignores their plight.
An overwhelming majority of Americans support equal pay. According to a June 2010 National Partnership for Women and Families/Lake Research Partners poll regarding the Paycheck Fairness Act, 84% said they supported “a new law that would provide women more tools to get fair pay in the workplace.” 72% expressed strong support. This message resonated with men (81% support/69% strong) and women (87% support/74% strong) and among Democrats (91% support/83% strong), Republicans (77% support/61% strong), and Independents (87% support/70% strong). It also holds up among racial and ethnic groups and across geographic regions.
The Paycheck Fairness Act sends a clear message. The wage gap is real. No employer should benefit from discriminating against employees like Lilly Ledbetter. Retaliating against employees who fight for equal pay is unacceptable. Pay equity should be the rule, not the exception.
What the Paycheck Fairness Act does not do is also clear. It does not eviscerate employers’ legal rights. It does not take away their right to set their own business practices or constrain them in terms of job applicants. It does not create unfair comparisons between jobs performed or where they’re performed. It does not hurt small businesses, and it certainly does not negatively impact women.
The Ledbetter v. Goodyear decision was a clear step backward for ending employment discrimination in the workplace, when the Supreme Court held that employees could not challenge ongoing compensation discrimination if the employer’s original discriminatory decision occurred more than 180 days before filing of the claim.
President Obama and Congress worked together to correct this misinterpretation of the nation’s civil rights laws, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act became law on January 29, 2009. The law reiterates Congress’ intent to hold employers accountable for discrimination and allows employees a fair chance to fight back.
Congress must now cross the finish line and also pass the Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 1519/S. 797). This legislation strengthens the remedy, enforcement, and exception provisions of the existing Equal Pay Act. It engages the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Labor in a number areas including technical assistance, data collection and review of existing data, and the provision of wage discrimination training to government employees and individuals seeking their assistance. It supports negotiation skills training for women and girls and general public awareness regarding the means available to eliminate pay discrimination.
Contact your Representative and Senators and tell them that equal pay is not yet a reality for American women. Let them know that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act wasn’t the last word. Urge the Senate to take action on the Paycheck Fairness Act. Thank anyone who has cosponsored or voted for either of these pieces of legislation. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper explaining how important it is to address the wage gap during tough economic times.
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