Equal Pay in the New Administration
A new, self-proclaimed feminist President pledges to support fair pay legislation. Now it is up to the Senate to do the same.
On this month’s cover of Ms. Magazine, “Superman Obama” rips open his shirt to reveal the message, “This is what a feminist looks like.” That’s good news for American women and families, but what President Obama needs now is a “feminist” Senate.
Already approved by the House, this legislation will reverse the 2007 Supreme Court ruling that took the teeth out of wage discrimination law. Under the ruling, a victim of wage discrimination must file a claim within 180 days of the initial act of discrimination—such as the issuance of an inequitable pay check. So, even if the discrimination continues for years, as it did for Lilly Ledbetter at a Goodyear Tire plant, the employee loses legal recourse. It seems obvious that workers are not aware of, or ready to act on, suspected discrimination within the first 6 months of work, especially when many employers threaten retaliation for sharing salary information.
The next test for Ledbetter remains: passage without weakening amendments. This is not assured, which is why many advocacy groups like the National Women’s Law Center are encouraging concerned citizens to call their Senator before the vote, which could happen any day now.
The passage of Ledbetter as written will be a significant victory, but it puts us back to square one. To give the new administration the tools to end wage discrimination, a second comprehensive law – also passed last week by the House – is essential. The Paycheck Fairness Act would update the Equal Pay Act of 1963. Shepherded by departing Senator Clinton, it would create incentives for employer compliance with equal pay laws, rearm federal enforcement and outreach efforts, and encourage programs to help eliminate the persistent wage gap.
Unbelievably, we are still calculating the wage gap 45 years after President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act. Women are still only paid on average 78% of what their male counterparts make. That gap is real money and has a profound effect on women, their families and our communities, making equal pay a family pocketbook issue. Being underpaid today means making untenable choices everyday (healthcare or childcare?). It means smaller pensions for older women, making the current economic crisis especially punishing for this vulnerable, growing population.
There are other contributing factors to the gap, but one is simple: discrimination. Passage of both Ledbetter and Paycheck Fairness will address this. It will not solve the problem of persistent low wages for female-dominated jobs, or lack of access to male-dominated, nontraditional fields that can provide a living wage. It will not ensure that the economic stimulus package will benefit America’s working women. But, it is one step toward the promise of change. President Obama has made it clear. He is ready to sign strong equal pay laws: Ledbetter and Paycheck Fairness.
Now we need the Senate to deliver.
Beverly Cooper Neufeld is currently Vice President of the New York Women’s Agenda and Coordinator of the Equal Pay Coalition NYC. A frequent commentator on women’s issues, she consults with groups on advocacy, organizational development, and strategic and program planning. Among other positions, Neufeld is the former Executive Director of The White House Project and Director of Finance for Congresswoman Lowey.