by Katherine A. Greenier, Director, Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project, ACLU of Virginia
Today is Equal Pay Day, the point in 2011 at which women will finally earn as much as men did in 2010 alone.  It’s unfortunate, but it takes women an additional four months to earn as much as men do.  Senator Barbara Mikulski and Representative Rosa DeLauro are commemorating this day by reintroducing the Paycheck Fairness Act, a much-needed, first-ever update to the Equal Pay Act of 1963.    Equal Pay Day, however, is not a celebration.
Some may think that legislation like this is not necessary because wage inequity no longer exists.  These opponents of the Paycheck Fairness Act point to statistics showing the progress that women have made in the workforce.  Indeed, women have made enormous strides when it comes to employment.  According to a recent White House report, women’s labor force participation is at the highest rate ever, and their earnings make up a growing share of household incomes.  However, the same report also tells us that this progress has not translated into pay equity.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women who work full-time still earn, on average, 77 cents for every dollar men earn.  For African American women and Latinas, the numbers are even worse.  In fact, this continuing disparity is the reason that “celebrating” Equal Pay Day is still necessary.  At the current rate of “progress,” it could take decades before women reach equal pay and achieve the end of Equal Pay Day, if nothing is done.
In this economic climate working families cannot afford to wait.  The entire family feels the pain of wage discrimination. This is more profoundly so as more women are working and supporting families than ever before.
So, how big is the financial punch of the wage gap on a pocketbook?
Economist Evelyn Murphy has estimated that chronic wage discrimination will deprive a woman of between $700,000 and $2 million over a career.  This figure grows when the loss of pension and social security benefits is included.  The effects of wage discrimination follow its victims for a lifetime.
Unfortunately, over time, loopholes and weak remedies have made one of the laws intended to stop this problem, Equal Pay Act of 1963, less effective in combating wage discrimination.  The Paycheck Fairness Act would provide much needed updates to the 48-year-old Equal Pay Act and tackle the most stubborn barriers to fair pay, while balancing the needs of both employees and employers.
The bill requires that employers demonstrate that wage differences between men and women holding the same position and doing the same work stem from criteria unrelated to their gender.  Of course, factors such as merit and seniority, for example, remain acceptable reasons for differences in pay.  But the bill clarifies that those pay differences must truly be based on reasons other than the sex of their employees.
Often, company policies prohibit employees from telling colleagues about their salary and can even fire them if they do so.  To address this problem, the bill prohibits retaliation against workers who ask about a company’s wage practices or tells another employee their wage.  However, to balance business’ need for confidentiality in some instances, employees with access to colleagues’ wage information in the course of their work, such as human resources employees, may still be prohibited from sharing that information.
The Paycheck Fairness bill also strengthens penalties for equal pay violations.  The bill’s measured approach levels the playing field by ensuring that women can obtain the same remedies as those subject to discrimination on the basis of race or national origin.
At the same time, this legislation provides new tools for employers. It would require the U.S. Department of Labor to provide technical assistance to employers, recognize the achievements of businesses that address the wage gap, and collect wage-related data to better examine the wage gap.  In addition, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission staff would receive additional training to better identify and handle wage disputes.
Pay equity is critical not only to families’ economic security, but also to the nation’s economic recovery.  It is time for Congress to make pay equity a priority and to end the necessity to “celebrate” Equal Pay Day each year.
Ask Your Members of Congress to Co-Sponsor the Paycheck Fairness Act Today!