Paycheck Fairness Act essential for women, families

Posted Sept. 24, 2010, at 7:47 p.m.

I’ve experienced paycheck discrimination — twice. Both times, I was working in a job where I and multiple male colleagues were hired within days of one another for the same position. Both times, I discovered by accident that I was making significantly less than my male co-workers.

That unfair treatment humiliated me and alienated me from workplaces I otherwise loved. I agonized before going to my supervisors in both cases to plead my case for equal pay.

No woman should have to lobby her boss to be paid the same as a man doing the same work. Yet, a U.S. Census report issued last week demonstrates that women in the United States in 2009 made an average of 79 cents for every dollar men make.

That’s the same ratio as 2008. Progress appears to be stalled. Without a law that enforces paycheck fairness, some businesses will continue to discriminate against women.

The Paycheck Fairness Act being considered by Congress very soon could go far in ending paycheck discrimination. The Paycheck Fairness Act would prevent employers from retaliating against women (or men) who discuss their pay with their colleagues. Workers should not fear losing their job for daring to ask if they are being paid fairly.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would require large corporations to provide a justification for paying men and women differently. Clearly, employers should be able to pay individuals of different skills and experience levels differently or reward higher responsibility with higher pay. However, employers should also be required to show that, in fact, pay differences are based on merit, not prejudice. Workers should be able to know that their employers are paying them equal pay for equal work.

Some employers may need help to systematically examine and address employment discrimination in their workplace. Some employers may not realize that female workers are being paid less than male workers in their business.

In my case, both of my employers gave me pay raises to bring me to the level of my male colleagues who were doing the same work. They expressed concern that they did not fully realize the implications of their decisions about pay.

The Paycheck Fairness Act directs the Department of Labor to assist employers in ending discrimination in their workplaces. It authorizes additional training for Equal Employment Opportunity staff to identify and handle workplace disputes.

Sometimes, though, discrimination is intentional. There are still employers who believe women are not equal in ability to men. For those employers who will not change their behavior through education and negotiation, the act allows a worker to collect punitive damages if an employer shows “malice or reckless indifference” to their pay discrimination case.

Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins were quoted in this paper expressing concern about the effect this provision might have on business. But what about the effect that not including any real punishment for lawbreakers would have on workers and families? An employer who is deliberately discriminating against their employees — male or female — should be held accountable.

Workers should have a right not only to their day in court, but also to meaningful compensation if the trial proves that the employer was recklessly and maliciously discriminating. Some corporations will deliberately break the law if they think they can get away with it, particularly if the punishment is minor. Punitive damages are a necessary tool in those rare cases where a corporation is deliberately and maliciously breaking the law.

The Paycheck Fairness Act creates an exception for small businesses. As an employer of five people at the Maine Civil Liberties Union, I’m committed to ensuring that everyone in my office receives equal pay for equal work regardless of whether or not the law covers me. But as the data show, some larger corporations are continuing to discriminate against women. It’s important to strengthen penalties for equal pay violations.

Sens. Snowe and Collins have frequently been champions for women’s rights. Paycheck fairness is a women’s rights issue, but it’s also a family rights issue. In this tough economy, whole families suffer when mothers do not receive equal pay for equal work at the office.

The House of Representatives passed the Paycheck Fairness Act overwhelmingly with bipartisan support. Now, the Senate has the opportunity to act to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act into law. It’s time to place principle over politics and give women, and our families, the equal pay we deserve.

Shenna Bellows is executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

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