02/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Congress Can Act Now for Economic Recovery -- And Simple Justice

As early as this week , the new Congress can jumpstart the economy by passing two laws that will put more money into working women's paychecks by making sure they're paid what they're worth.

Especially if concerned citizens call on Congress to take action now, the House and Senate are poised to pass two pieces of legislation that empower working women to challenge pay discrimination:

The first piece of legislation, the Paycheck Fairness Act, takes aim at paycheck discrimination against women in three ways. It makes the penalties as serious as those for bias based on race or national origin. It closes loopholes in the Equal Pay Act, so that companies can't justify discrimination with factors other than sex that have nothing to do with the job. And it outlaws retaliation against workers who alert their coworkers to discrimination by telling them how much they're being paid.

The second proposed law -- the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act -- provides that women -- and other victims of unfairness -- can file pay discrimination claims within 180 days of each discriminatory paycheck that they receive.

That's how the nation's civil rights laws should work, and that's how they worked until 2007. As the courts and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission interpreted and enforced the laws, every discriminatory paycheck was a new violation that restarted the clock for filing a claim.

But, in 2007, the Supreme Court changed the rules by ruling against Lilly Ledbetter. After working for almost 20 years for Goodyear Tire and Rubber, she sued the company after learning that she was the lowest-paid supervisor at her plant, even though she had more experience than several men in the same position. A jury found that she had suffered unlawful pay discrimination because of her sex. But the Supreme Court overturned the decision, saying she had waited too long to sue, despite the fact that she had filed a charge with the EEOC as soon as she learned that she was paid less than her male counterparts.

The Lilly Ledbetter Act overturns this decision -- and makes civil rights laws work for working women again.

Both bills are necessary because pay discrimination is a persistent problem -- and a real drag on the economy. Working women still earn only 78 cents for every dollar that men make. Moreover, the problem is even worse for single, separated, divorced, and widowed women: These "women on their own" make only 56 cents for every dollar that married men are paid. Over their lifetimes, women lose anywhere from $400,000 to $2 million in lost wages because of pay discrimination.

Now that the recession is taking its toll, women generally and "women on their own" in particular are suffering severe hardships. As early as April, 2008, female-headed households were twice as likely as others to have their income decline by 50 percent or more. Of any demographic group, single women are the most likely to file for bankruptcy, accounting for 40 percent of all bankruptcy findings.

Unmarried women are also more vulnerable to the recession because they have few savings to fall back on in hard times. Even before the stock market collapse, the average unmarried woman's net worth -- $12,900 -- was less than half the average unmarried man's -- $26,850.

These glaring gaps in wages and wealth are a drag on the economy in good times -- and a danger to the economy in bad times. Since these "women on their own" are in danger of layoffs, foreclosures, evictions and bankruptcies, the economy risks losing their earnings, their spending and their tax revenues and incurring the added costs of providing them with social insurance or public assistance.

By discouraging discrimination against working women, the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act will help these women to earn what they're worth, afford the necessities of life, and pump more money back into the economy. That's a formula for recovering from the recession in the months ahead, promoting prosperity for years to come, and advancing fundamental fairness in the economy and our entire society.

To urge your Senators and Representative to support these important pieces of legislation as soon as possible, please follow this link (courtesy of the National Women's Law Center):

Page S. Gardner is president of Women's Voices. Women Vote, a national nonpartisan organization that promotes civic participation among the nation's more than 53 million single, separated, divorced, and widowed women.