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Deborah J. Vagins

Deborah J. Vagins

Posted: January 29, 2010 01:20 PM

A Milestone With Miles To Go

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Today marks the one-year anniversary of the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Obama. This critical law fixed a 2007 Supreme Court decision that sharply limited workers' opportunities to challenge wage discrimination, and undermined civil rights law that had been in place for decades. The Ledbetter Act restored the fundamentally just principle that an employee should have her day in court as long as an employer continues to discriminate against her. Enactment of this law was a decisive victory for pay equity, and the anniversary of its signing is an important milestone. The Ledbetter Act, however, merely restored the right to get into court that women had previously held for years.

Unfortunately, the continuing existence of a dramatic gender-based wage gap proves that a mere restoration of rights is not enough to ensure equal pay for all women. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women who work full time continue to earn an average of 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. The statistics for women of color are even worse. As Lilly Ledbetter herself stated at the signing ceremony for the Ledbetter Act: "With this bill in place, we can now move forward to where we all hope to be — improving the law, not just restoring it."

So while we celebrate this important one-year anniversary, there is actually another milestone to keep in mind. Pay discrimination based on gender became illegal in 1963 with the passage of the Equal Pay Act, but 47 years later, women are still waiting for its promise to be fulfilled. Over time, the Equal Pay Act has been severely eroded through loopholes, court decisions and inadequate remedies. Nearly five decades after President Kennedy signed the act, women, on average, continue to earn 23 percent less than men doing the same work. There is, however, a bill currently poised for passage in the Senate, the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 182), that would amend the Equal Pay Act and help end women's long wait for justice in their paychecks.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would addresses the shortcomings of the Equal Pay Act by requiring employers to show that any wage differences between employees performing the same work must be based on legitimate reasons unrelated to the employees' sex. The bill also prohibits retaliation against employees who inquire about their employer's wage practices or disclose their wage information to other employees. The Paycheck Fairness Act would also ensure that women who are discriminated against in the workplace can obtain the same remedies as those who suffer from discrimination based on race or national origin.

In this video, Lilly Ledbetter talks about why she took her case to the Supreme Court and the importance of the Paycheck Fairness Act:

In addition to these useful tools for employees, the Paycheck Fairness Act also balances the legitimate business needs of employers and provides incentives for compliance. This is why both the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce and Business and Professional Women have endorsed it. After all, during these belt-tightening times, what higher priority can there be than securing American workers' paychecks and ensuring legitimate business competition?

In fact, in this economic climate, working families cannot afford to wait any longer for the Paycheck Fairness Act. The entire family feels the pain of wage discrimination. As unemployment rates skyrocket, families depend on women's income more than ever, making pay equity even more critical to families' economic security and the nation's economic recovery.

Indeed, women could be the economic engine that helps to drive this economic recovery, but not when discrimination follows them for a lifetime. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), lead sponsor of the bill, has noted that the pay gap is "not only discrimination — it's robbery." According to the congressional testimony of economist Evelyn Murphy, chronic wage discrimination can deprive a woman of between $700,000 and $2 million over her career. This figure grows when the loss of pension and social security benefits is included.

On this important anniversary, we must remember that an entire generation of working women has entered and left the workforce since the passage of the Equal Pay Act, taking home less than pay than they deserved. But we are well positioned to finally do something about it. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Paycheck Fairness Act early in 2009, and the Senate bill currently has 35 cosponsors — more than the bill has ever had in previous Congresses. In a press conference earlier this week, Sen. Dodd indicated that the Senate HELP Committee plans on a hearing on the bill in next six weeks and that leadership will bring the bill to the Senate floor later this year.

Although today we celebrate an important milestone, American women are still waiting — one year after the enactment of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and decades after the Equal Pay Act — to see pay equity become a reality. Enacting the Paycheck Fairness Act would lead us toward the day when women no longer have to wait for the equal pay they deserve.