THE BLOG

Why the Fight for Pay Equity Is So Important

02/03/2015 05:11 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

Right now across America, women are working to pay their bills, put food on the table for their families, slowly chip away at their mounting debt and student loans, or to even save a little for their own children to go to college. With the shifting workforce in this country, many of these women are increasingly the financial head of their household.

There is stress. There is fear. And always there is this reality: If they are white women they are earning roughly 81 cents on the dollar for every dollar that men earn. If they are African-American or Latina, it's 64 or 55 cents, respectively.

Six years ago on Jan. 29, President Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, giving women more options to challenge that pay bias. The law's namesake, Lilly Ledbetter, spent 10 years fighting for pay equity -- through the courts and then on to Congress. Her suit against her employer, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, ended up in the Supreme Court. Ultimately, Congress reversed that ruling with the Fair Pay Act.

But the reality is that the pay gap between women and men has barely budged. America's families can no longer afford to wait for real change to happen.

The fact is that women are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households, while bringing home 23 percent less than their male counterparts. I'm sure you know someone in your community who falls in this category. The fact that women are not paid fairly means there is less money available for families' everyday needs, less for investments in our children's futures and, when added over a lifetime of work, substantially less for retirement.

I know how important a woman's paycheck can be for a family, having raised three children. When I quit my teaching job to become a home care provider and care for my son, who has severe cerebral palsy, it was a struggle to keep up. When I saw that part of my paycheck was going to "union dues," I hit the roof. But that turned out to be the best investment I've ever made.

Our leaders could take a number of actions to alleviate this problem for American families, and in the overall U.S. economy, beginning with passing the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, introduced this week by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.). It would encourage private-sector employers to follow suit, so that parents -- particularly women -- will be able to bond with their children and recover fully before returning to work, just as parents can do in most developed countries that offer paid parental leave.

Congress could also raise the minimum wage, just as many states and localities have done to help working families keep pace. Most minimum wage workers are women -- even more so in those professions where workers survive on tips.

And we need the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would provide incentives for employers not to discriminate against their female employees. This long-stalled bill would close loopholes in the existing Equal Pay Act and allow women to find out for themselves if they are being discriminated against. Under current law, employers can restrict their workers from discussing their pay, preventing women from even learning about discrimination.

Women also can do something for themselves: Join a union. Union women earn 91 cents for every dollar a union man earns, and we continue to close the gap -- it shrank 2.8 percent from 2012 to 2013, while the wage gap between nonunion women and men continued its 124-year march to justice.

That's a clear union advantage. Not only do all union workers earn $207 more a week, on average (approximately $10,000 a year) than nonunion workers, but union women in particular earn $222 more a week than their nonunion counterparts. This is what I learned when I decided to get involved with my union, working as a home care provider in Southern California. I found out that paying union dues was a great investment for my family.

We owe Lilly Ledbetter a huge debt of gratitude for standing up and fighting for what is right. We honor her with a promise that we will keep up the fight until all the sisters in America enjoy pay equity with their brothers. Union members understand this better than anyone.