May 28, 2018
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Paycheck fairness bill gets reality check

J. Scott Applewhite | AP
J. Scott Applewhite | AP
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. (left), accompanied by Lilly Ledbetter, the woman who has been the symbol for the workplace equality movement, speaks to reporters during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 5, 2012, as the Senate considers the "Paycheck Fairness Act."

Women continue to receive unequal pay for equal work. Lilly Ledbetter, who was underpaid for 19 years of work at Goodyear Tire and Rubber, made that fact clear when she spoke in Orono recently.

But it was not a travesty when Republicans in the U.S. Senate blocked a vote this week on the Paycheck Fairness Act. That’s because the merits of some the legislation’s specific components were less convincing than the soundbite.

Some provisions made sense, such as those that would have provided resources for women to develop salary negotiating skills and prevented companies from punishing employees who discuss their salaries with their colleagues or bring up wage-parity problems.

But a major part of the legislation would have required employers to prove that wage gaps were based on job requirements and not gender. The provision basically would have eliminated the ability of a company to react to the varied requests of its employees.

Say a company offers a man and a woman equivalent jobs with the same pay. The man demands a higher salary, and the company agrees. The woman, however, never asks for more money. Under current law, it’s probably OK that the company gave the man the larger starting salary. Under the act, though, it would have been a problem, even though the company did not base its pay decision on gender.

Should a company be punished when an employee doesn’t even negotiate for higher wages? Under the act, a similar scenario would happen if a man asked for a raise, but a woman did not.

Perhaps the most important question, though, is: Would making companies liable really have addressed the problem of pay inequity? There are many factors that go into the wage gap of women earning 77 cents for every dollar men earn. And some of them have more to do with women’s choices than with the discrimination of companies.

For instance, a greater percentage of women than men tend to work part-time, which usually pays less than full-time work, according to a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor. A greater percentage of women tend to leave work to care for a child or a parent. Women also may tend to value nonwage benefits more than men and therefore take a greater percentage of their compensation in the form of health insurance.

You can argue that those choices by women are the result of ingrained stereotypes. But is that a reason to make businesses liable for wage decisions that have nothing to do with sexism? Under the 1963 Equal Pay Act, it’s already illegal for businesses to discriminate intentionally. (Employers may pay different wages to men and women performing equivalent work if the pay is based on measures such as merit or seniority).

Of course employers never should pay women less than men for equal work. And more can be done to ensure it doesn’t happen, such as by making it harder for businesses to retaliate against women who claim pay discrimination and by providing negotiation skills training. The country also can continue its research into the issue.

But U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe were correct to vote against this version of the Paycheck Fairness Act. Don’t be fooled when Democrats use the Republicans’ vote to make them look as if they hate women. They just needed a better — or should we say fairer? — bill.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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