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Restoring Some Reality to the Paycheck Fairness Debate

For nearly 50 years, federal law has banned the payment of unequal wages to women and men who perform the same job. Yet women today still make only 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts – an improvement of only 18 cents over the last several decades. And for women of color, the gap is even larger.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would strengthen current laws against wage discrimination by protecting employees who voluntarily share pay information with colleagues from retaliation, fully compensating victims of sex-based pay discrimination, and holding employers more accountable under the Equal Pay Act. These proposals would finally move the ball forward on the wage gap that has inched along over the last 50 years and remained stagnant over the last decade.

In recent weeks, opponents of the Paycheck Fairness Act have put forth rhetoric that downplays the wage gap and mischaracterizes the commonsense proposals in the bill. To restore some reality to the debate, I’ve unpacked five absurd myths that have emerged as the Senate prepares to consider the Paycheck Fairness Act next week.

1.Yes, there really is a wage gap.

Opponents of efforts to address the wage gap often begin by asserting that there is no wage gap or that any gap in wages is due to life choices made by women and therefore is not worthy of Congress’ attention. Here are the facts about the wage gap:

  • American women who work full time, year round are paid only 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. This gap in earnings translates into $10,784 less per year in median earnings, leaving women and their families shortchanged. The wage gap is even more substantial when race and gender are considered together, with African-American women making only 62 cents, and Hispanic women only 54 cents, for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.
  • The wage gap is not merely a matter of choice in occupation – women typically are paid less than men in the same occupation. This is the case whether that occupation pays high or low wages, whether they work in traditionally male occupations, traditionally female occupations, or occupations with an even mix of men and women.
  • Numerous studies show that even when all relevant career and family attributes are taken into account, there is still a significant, unexplained gap in men’s and women’s earnings. Thus, even when women make the same career choices as men and work the same hours, they earn less. For example, an AAUW study of college graduates one year after graduation determined that women earned only 95 percent of what men earned, even after accounting for variables such as “job and workplace, employment experience and continuity, education and training, and demographic and personal characteristics.”

2. Yes, improvements in the equal pay laws are necessary, even after the Ledbetter Act.

Opponents of the Paycheck Fairness Act argue that existing law provides enough protection against wage discrimination and point to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in particular as evidence that further improvements in the law are unnecessary. Although the Ledbetter Act was critical, it is important to revisit what the law actually did. The Ledbetter Act restored the protection against pay discrimination stripped away by the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear. The Act made clear that each discriminatory paycheck, not just an employer’s original decision to engage in pay discrimination, resets the period of time during which a worker may file a pay discrimination claim. Although it was a technical fix, it was an important one. The steps taken in the Ledbetter Act enable workers to bring wage discrimination cases again. But the Ledbetter Act simply returned the law to what it was prior to the Court’s 2007 decision. Even after the Ledbetter Act, our existing equal pay laws remain weakened by a series of other court decisions and lack the right tools to detect and combat wage discrimination. An update to the Equal Pay Act is long overdue and the Paycheck Fairness Act provides the necessary improvements.

3. Yes – employers will continue to hire women even if they have to pay them fairly.

Opponents of the Paycheck Fairness Act complain that the bill will hurt the economy and increase unemployment among women. These are not new arguments when it comes to fair employment laws – in fact, some of these same arguments were made 50 years ago when the Equal Pay Act itself was passed. It was not true when the Equal Pay Act first banned sex discrimination in compensation and it will not be true when the Paycheck Fairness Act improves that law – smart, responsible employers will continue to seek out the talent of women to fill their positions And improving the fair pay laws may result lower rates of employee turnover – when employees believe that they are fairly compensated, they are less likely to leave their place of employment for better paying jobs.

4. No – the Paycheck Fairness Act will not result in pay cuts for men.

A few weeks ago, opponents of the bill began pushing the odd idea that the Paycheck Fairness Act would require employers to cut the salaries of male employees. This argument has absolutely no basis in reality. The Equal Pay Act expressly prohibits employers from lowering the wages of men to make up for discrimination against women. In fact, the first paragraph of the Act states that an employer “shall not, in order to comply with the provisions [the Equal Pay Act], reduce the wage rate of any employee.” The bill does nothing to disturb this longstanding rule.

5. No – employers will not go to jail for violating the provisions in the Paycheck Fairness Act.

One of the latest scare tactics put forth about this bill is the idea that employers will be subject to criminal penalties for refusing to disclose salary information for employers. Let’s put this one to rest for good: no part of the bill provides for criminal penalties for employers for any conduct. But, to be sure, the anti-retaliation measures in the Paycheck Fairness Act are critical. Currently, pay disparities often go unnoticed because employers forbid employees from sharing wage information with each other. The bill enhances employees’ ability to learn about wage discrimination by merely banning retaliation against workers who inquire about their employers’ wage practices or disclose their own wages. Note that it does not ban pay secrecy policies altogether – in fact, employers with access to colleagues’ wage information in the course of their work, such as human resources employees, may still be prohibited from sharing that information.

None of the above distractions raised by opponents to the Paycheck Fairness Act stand up to scrutiny. Next week the Senate has the opportunity to move forward with the Paycheck Fairness Act. After coming just 2 votes short of the 60 votes needed to proceed to debate in the last Congress, it is time to pass these important improvements to the fair pay laws.

This blog is part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.