Will a Lame Duck Congress Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act?

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Will a Lame Duck Congress Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act?

Amie Newman

The Paycheck Fairness Act is slated to come up for a vote this Wednesday, November 17th.  Unless it passes, it could take another 50 years for women to achieve pay equity.

The Paycheck Fairness Act is slated to come up for a vote this Wednesday, November 17th. It’s a bill that addresses pay discrimination based on gender; discriminatory practices that have not thoroughly been addressed in other laws, as evidenced by stagnation in wage gap between women and men. Women still make 77 cents for every one dollar men make and for women of color that number goes down to almost 62 cents for every one dollar a white man makes.  Efforts to close the wage gap have slowed down considerably since the 1990s and women’s rights advocates are just not willing to wait another 50 years for pay equity. Working families should not be willing to wait either.

Despite claims by the business community that this type of discrimination has already been covered in other laws, or that it will increase the number of lawsuits or (my personal favorite) create a disincentive for employers to hire women (wow, you know you’re reaching when you reason that if society passes a bill to reduce discrimination in the workplace, you’ll react by discriminating further!), the bill has already passed the House and has the full support of President Obama.

At the risk of repeating an entire post I’ve written about this act, I’ll just say that the Paycheck Fairness Act addresses loopholes in both the Equal Pay Act and is connected to the Lilly Ledbetter Act only in so much as it is a necessary “next step” piece of legislation. Where the Equal Pay Act notes that an employer must ensure that they are not paying a male and a female different pay for the same work (controlling for other issues like years of experience, for example), their reasoning can be, well, flimsy. Employers can say, “Well, Jeff negotiated more forcefully for a raise. Lucy just didn’t have the negotiation skills.” That may be true but does it address the underlying gender discrimination? The Paycheck Fairness Act says an employer must have a business reason for paying male and female employees – who are doing the exact same job – different wages. The Lilly Ledbetter Act, on the other hand, is simply a law which extends the statute of limitations for an employee to bring a wage discrimination suit against an employer. It does not provide parameters for pay equity in the workplace.

The Paycheck Fairness Act does more, however. It establishes negotation skills training for girls and women. It establishes a way for the government to track fields in which wage discrimination happens more frequently. It creates incentives for employers to maintain fair and equitable workplace environments in regard to pay. It also ensures that employees may discuss wages with each other without fear of recrimination from employers – a critical allowance when you consider that the only way Lilly Ledbetter knew she was the victim of discrimination was when a fellow employee left an anonymous note in her mail box at work.

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And as for the business community’s contention that this will somehow weaken the already fragile economy? I have two responses. First of all, two working parents or a working single parent lead 70 percent of families in the United States. Single female-headed households are on the rise – yet account for the poorest sectors of our society.

Women are not putting the icing on the paycheck cake for families – we’re not bringing in a “little bit extra” for that fancy new car or week-long vacation. Women’s wages are integral to the economic health of our families. If we pay women fairly, we’re also strengthening the economy. As the Center for American Progress reports, men have been more likely to lose their jobs during this economic recession, “The persistent gender pay gap is adding insult to injury for families already hit hard by unemployment.”

Under this lens, it makes even more sense that if women are increasingly becoming sole breadwinners for the family, they must be paid fairly for the work they are doing,

Lilly Ledbetter estimated that she lost upwards of $200,000 over her professional lifetime as a result of gender-based wage discrimination. That’s a lot of money she could have spent – not only on saving money for her children’s education or for health care but on so many other items that would have helped support small and larger businesses alike. The Center for American Progress notes that the typical woman will lose approximately $431,000 over a 40-year span of time.

The American Assocation of University Women notes that, “…just one year out of college, women working full time already earn less than their male colleagues, even when they work in the same field. Ten years after graduation, the pay gap widens.”

Attempting to make the argument that paying women fairly will somehow place businesses in jeopardy is not sound reasoning.

The only option that truly makes sense, advocates say, during a time of recession and after waiting almost fifty years for fair pay since the passage of the Equal Pay Act, is to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act.