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Lilly Ledbetter's Anniversary Calls Us To Action

Four years ago today President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, restoring the law that existed for decades in virtually every region of the country prior to the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. The importance of the Ledbetter Act cannot be overstated – in the last 4 years, workers have once again been able to challenge unfair pay in court and pay discrimination claims around the country have been restored.

But even four years ago at the signing of the bill that bears her name, Lilly Ledbetter said the following: “With this bill in place, we now can move forward to where we all hope to be – improving the law, not just restoring it.” Those words are especially true today. The most recent data shows that woman working full time, year round are paid 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. This is a statistic that is unchanged from not only four years ago, but this gap has remained the same for a decade. For women of color, it’s much worse, with the typical African-American woman paid 64 cents and the typical Latina woman paid 55 cents for every dollar paid to a white, non-Hispanic man. A gap in wages occurs at all education levels, after work experience is taken into account, and it gets worse as women’s careers progress.

If we pair these disturbing statistics with the severe limits to existing laws and policies it is even grimmer. Workers are frequently left in the dark about wage disparities, a problem that is exacerbated by employers that penalize their employees for revealing or discussing wages. In addition, even when women somehow muster enough information to prove discrimination, the remedies are extremely narrow. This means that there are too few incentives for employers to voluntarily comply with the law, and engaging in pay discrimination can be simply an unfortunate “cost” of doing business.

Last week Senator Mikulski and Congresswoman DeLauro, together with many of their colleagues, took a key step toward improving the law by reintroducing the Paycheck Fairness Act. This bill would strengthen current laws against wage discrimination by protecting employees who voluntarily share pay information with colleagues from retaliation and holding employers more accountable under the Equal Pay Act. The Paycheck Fairness Act has strong support from the President, the public, has twice passed the House with bipartisan support and has fallen just a few votes short of moving forward in the Senate. Unfortunately, it has failed to pass because of the objections of a handful of Senators.

But workers do not have to wait for Congress to finally complete the unfinished business of pay equity. President Obama has the authority to take initial steps by adopting a small piece of the Paycheck Fairness Act right now. A fair pay executive order would ensure that contractors who have the privilege of doing business with the federal government cannot retaliate against workers who discuss their own pay – such a ban is consistent with the longstanding principal that taxpayer dollars used to buy goods and services from private companies should not support discrimination. Moreover, issuing such an order would greatly enhance millions of employees’ ability to learn about wage disparities and provide workers with much-needed certainty that their livelihoods will not be at stake if they discuss their wages. Moving forward with an executive order would also importantly demonstrate to Congress the urgency of improving fair pay protections.

To be sure, this sort of executive action is not the only step. It can’t be – it would address only one problem with the pay discrimination laws and would apply to only the employers who are already held to a higher standard because they maintain the privileged status of federal contractor. A multifaceted campaign to combat the wage gap is in order after a decade of no progress. It is critical that Congress move forward swiftly with the Paycheck Fairness Act and in fact Congress should explore broader protections that will further reduce the wage gap, including the Fair Pay Act, reintroduced today by Senator Harkin.

Women and their families must not wait any longer.

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