Submitted by Patrick Callahan, NELA's 2013 Peggy Browning Fellow
When President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA), he envisioned the law as a first step toward ensuring a level playing field for women in the workforce. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this landmark legislation, it is important to evaluate its effectiveness in preventing wage discrimination based on gender. In 1963, women workers made just 59 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. Today, women workers earn 77 cents for every dollar taken home by male workers, a figure that is even lower for Hispanic and African American women. The gender pay gap is magnified in the 40 percent of households that now rely on a woman as the primary wage earner. While the goal of ensuring pay equality has advanced significantly, much work remains to be done.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is tasked with enforcing the EPA and has recently stepped up its efforts to crack down on discriminatory pay practices. The EEOC listed enforcement of the EPA as a priority in its most recent strategic plan and continues to investigate employer pay practices, regardless of whether a charge has been filed, as part of an ongoing pilot program. Despite the EEOC’s best efforts, however, case backlogs and finite resources leave the bulk of EPA enforcement to the private sector.
For all of its advances in 1963, several issues have arisen in the intervening years that make further reforms necessary. As an example, the EPA bans wage discrimination based on gender but affords claimants limited remedies. Furthermore, the Act does little to improve transparency in payment practices because it allows employers to prohibit their employees from discussing compensation amongst themselves.
The Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA), S. 84/H.R. 377, would allow victims of pay discrimination to seek compensatory and punitive damages, as opposed to merely back pay and liquidated damages. In addition to allowing workers to challenge gender pay discrimination collectively via class actions, the PFA would protect employees’ ability to share wage and salary information with their co-workers. The PFA also places the burden on employers to offer proof that all pay and promotion decisions are based on factors other than gender.
The PFA has been called a “liberal plot” by House Republicans who continue to block the bill from a floor vote, despite its having 206 cosponsors. The current Senate bill is cosponsored by 46 Democrats. Additional supporters are needed; despite having 36 cosponsors in the last Congress, PFA champion Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) was unable to break a Republican filibuster and the bill was denied a floor vote.
As we celebrate the success of the EPA, we must also let our elected officials know that gender pay discrepancies are unacceptable in a 21st century workforce. Reforms, like the Paycheck Fairness Act, will build upon the framework established by President Kennedy in 1963. If your Senators or Representative have not yet cosponsored the PFA, call them today. (Here are the lists of current House and Senate cosponsors.) They can be reached through the Capitol Operator at (202) 224-3121.