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Sen. Tom Harkin

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Equal Pay Day: Fairness for America's Women

Posted: 04/09/2013 9:55 am

In 1963, Congress enacted the Equal Pay Act to end unfair discrimination against women in the workforce. At that time, 25 million female workers earned just 60 percent of the average pay for men. April 9th is Equal Pay Day, the day American women's earnings for 2012 catch up with men's 2012 earnings. Today, we recognize the progress we have made toward pay equality -- but too many women are still underpaid for the same or nearly the same work as men do. Today, on average, a woman makes only 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes. Over the course of a woman's career, she will lose an average of $400,000 as a result of unequal pay practices. As families struggle to save for college and a secure retirement, that missing $400,000 has a devastating impact on family budgets.

Millions of American families are dependent on a woman's paycheck just to get by, to put food on the table, pay for child care, and deal with health care bills. In today's economy, few families have a stay-at-home mother. In fact, 71 percent of mothers are in the labor force, and are major contributors to their families' income. Two-thirds of mothers bring home at least a quarter of their family's earnings. For more than four of 10 families with children, a woman is the majority or sole breadwinner.

That means in today's economy, when a mother earns less than her male colleagues, her family may need to sacrifice basic necessities and face greater economic insecurity. Over the course of a lifetime, income lost due to the wage gap puts women at a disadvantage when it comes to saving for a secure retirement or their ability to rely on retirement programs, which reduces their quality of life. According to the National Women's Law Center, the average Social Security benefit in 2011 was just $12,700 for women over 65, while men collected $16,700. In 2010, women 50 and over received just 56 cents for every dollar collected by men from pensions and annuities.

We have made progress in rectifying this economic injustice by passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was the first bill President Obama signed into law, in January 2009. That law kept the courthouse door open for women to seek recourse in the courts if they are underpaid compared to male colleagues with similar responsibilities and experience. The law encourages employers to end discriminatory pay practices, so that they are not liable for back pay to employees who discover that they are unfairly underpaid.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is a critical first step, but more needs to be done. First, it is important to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which I am proud to support. There are too many loopholes and barriers to effective enforcement in our existing laws. We need to strengthen penalties and give women the tools they need to confront discrimination. While during the last two Congresses, this important bill received more than majority support, Republican obstructionism has stood in the way of even allowing the Senate to debate the bill.

The Paycheck Fairness Act is essential to address overt discrimination. However, the systematic devaluation of "women's work"--including jobs like nursing, teaching, child care, social work, and more--is a more insidious and devastating problem. While these jobs require skills, effort, and responsibility, that are comparable to jobs primarily held by men, they pay significantly less. Eighty-nine percent of maids are women; 67 percent of janitors are men. While the jobs are equivalent, the median weekly earnings for a maid is $387; for a janitor $463. Computer support workers -- a job that is 72 percent male -- have median weekly earnings of $949. In contrast, secretaries and administrative assistants -- 96 percent of whom are women -- have median weekly earnings of $659. Why do we value someone who helps with computers more than someone who makes an entire office function? This is not to say men are overpaid. It is to say that jobs we consider "women's work" are underpaid.

That is why I re-introduced the Fair Pay Act this Congress. My bill would ensure that employers provide equal pay for jobs that are equivalent in skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions. In 1982, Minnesota implemented a pay equity plan for its state employees. The state found that women were segregated into historically female dominated jobs, and that women's jobs paid 20 percent less than male-dominated jobs. Pay equity wage adjustments were phased in over four years, leading to an average pay increase of $200 per month for women in female-dominated jobs. The wage gap decreased by approximately 9 percent.

And, in my home state of Iowa, in 1983, the Iowa state legislature passed a bill stipulating that the state shall not discriminate in compensation between predominately male and female jobs deemed to be of comparable worth. Toward that end, the state engaged a professional accounting firm to evaluate the "value" of 800 job classifications in state government. The final recommendations, made in April 1984, proposed that 10,751 employees should be given a pay increase. Implemented in March 1985, female employees' pay was increased at that time by about 1.5 percent.

For the women in this country who are currently being paid less not because of their skills or education but simply because their works is undervalued, ensuring they receive their real worth would make a huge difference for them and the families that rely on their wages. Four years after President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and on this Equal Pay Day, let us ensure that what happened to Lilly never happens again by recommitting ourselves to eliminating discrimination in the workplace and making equal pay for equal work a reality. America's working women and the families that rely on them deserve fairness on the job.

 
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