When President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act on June 10, 1963, he said, “I am delighted today to approve the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibits arbitrary discrimination against women in the payment of wages. This act represents many years of effort by labor, management and several private organizations not associated with labor or management, to call attention to the unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job.”
Today, the American workforce appears very different from that of 1963. Many more women are working to support families rather than merely to earn pin money. A majority of women are now in the workplace. According to the Center for American Progress, in six out of 10 families, women are either primary or co-breadwinners. With so many families dependent on the woman’s wages, it is imperative that these wages be as fair as possible.
Women in the United States make on average 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. This means that women must work more than 15 months to make what a man makes in a year. Further, with lower wages, women have reduced retirement funds, health benefits and Social Security funds. Yet, women live longer than men and need these resources to support them in their old age.
At 50 years old, the Equal Pay Act is the keystone law around fair pay, but it is in bad shape; it has too many loopholes. The law hinders employees’ ability to learn about wage disparities and to evaluate whether they are experiencing wage discrimination. The law has no provisions preventing employers from retaliating against employees who ask about wages or share their salary information. The Equal Pay Act makes it too easy for employers to pay different wages to male and female employees performing the same job without providing a legitimate business reason.
The Equal Pay Act has never been updated, despite the passage of several other civil rights laws. In 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed, thus regaining ground lost because of a horrible Supreme Court decision. While the Ledbetter Act reinstated employees’ ability to have their day in court, we need further action to give employees and employers the tools they need to close the pay gap.
The Paycheck Fairness Act is now under consideration by Congress, and it would bring needed protections. It closes loopholes in the Equal Pay Act so employers must have a legitimate business reason for paying women less for the same work. It clarifies acceptable reasons for differences in pay by requiring employers to demonstrate that wage gaps between men and women doing the same work have a business justification and are truly a result of factors other than gender. The Paycheck Fairness Act prohibits employers from retaliating against workers who discuss their salary with co-workers. As Lilly Ledbetter herself said, “Giving women my Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act without the Paycheck Fairness Act is like giving them a nail without a hammer.”
The Paycheck Fairness Act updates enforcement of the Equal Pay Act. One way this will happen is that the Paycheck Fairness Act eliminates artificial geographic limits, allowing a woman to reasonably compare her salary to male colleagues with the same employer as long as the facilities are in similar geographic regions. The Paycheck Fairness Act also provides safeguards for small businesses by keeping exemptions for companies that make less than $500,000 in annual revenues.
Kennedy said in 1963, “I am grateful to those members of Congress who worked so diligently to guide the Equal Pay Act through. It is a first step. It affirms our determination that when women enter the labor force they will find equality in their pay envelopes.”
To continue to affirm that women receive equal pay for equal work, contact your U.S. senators and representatives, and tell them to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Bets Brown is public policy chair for the American Association of University Women of Maine. She lives in South China.