Paycheck Fairness Act sorely needed

Posted Sept. 08, 2010, at 6:41 p.m.

Monday’s Labor Day holiday is about a lot more than parades and backyard barbecues. It’s about acknowledging America’s workers. And, what better way to honor workers and their families this year than to build an economic recovery based on equal pay for equal work?

In this recession, working women’s wages have become even more important to Mainers’ households. The recovery of the American middle class begins and ends with good-paying jobs, but that cannot happen if women continue to earn less than they deserve.

Women are the primary breadwinners, or co-breadwinners, in two out of three households. Yet full-time women workers are still making only 77 cents, on average, for every dollar their male counterparts earn. In Maine, that number is a still-paltry 79 cents. For African-American women and Latinas, the wage gap is significantly wider.

Maine’s wage gap leaves women and their families shortchanged by thousands of dollars a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a lifetime. It also weakens families’ retirement security down the road. That’s why all of us — women and men — have huge a stake in eliminating the wage gap.

Fortunately, there is change on the horizon. The Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 182) is a sorely needed update to the original Equal Pay Act signed 47 years ago. It would close loopholes and strengthen incentives to prevent pay discrimination.

It would create new opportunities for monitoring and enforcement — for example, through better data collection and giving businesses the tools they need to craft fair pay structures. It would empower the U.S. Department of Labor to provide technical assistance to employers and recognize the achievements of businesses that address the wage gap.

Importantly, it would also bring the U.S. Equal Pay Act into line with Maine’s state law, which prohibits punishing workers who share wage information — because it’s impossible to address unequal pay where you don’t know it’s happening. And in this economy, fear of losing your job will prevent women from speaking up to end discrimination. This provision will help businesses, too, by enabling employees and employers to recognize and correct illegal wage disparities — before the dollars add up.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed this bill, but it languishes in the Senate. Now is the time to urge Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins — both champions of equal pay — to pass this bill.

It’s about more than fairness. The Senate needs to prioritize this bill as a critical step in the nation’s economic recovery, and bring more desperately needed dollars into households and into local economies.

Fortunately, members of Congress can take comfort knowing that Americans are united behind equal pay. In a nationwide poll of registered voters conducted by Lake Research Partners in May, 84 percent said they supported “a new law that would provide women more tools to get fair pay in the workplace.” Seventy-two percent of voters strongly supported such a law.

No longer simply a woman’s issue, the wage gap weakens families and our economy. The Paycheck Fairness Act is a simple action this Congress can take this fall to end the wage gap once and for all. That will make this

Labor Day season truly a time to celebrate.

Sarah Standiford is executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby (www.mainewomen.org). Charmen Goehring-Fox is president of AAUW Maine (formerly known as the American Association of University Women, www.aauw.org).

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