War On Women Extends to Their Paychecks: Senate Republicans Refuse to Pass Paycheck Fairness Act

Imagine a country where men don't out-earn women by almost 25%. Where parents are able to hug their daughters and tell them to aim for the moon because they might just get there. Where employers can't get away with answering women who show they’ve been getting paid less than the men with a silent shrug of the shoulders. You have just imagined Canada and Australia. Now imagine it happening in the US, where Census numbers from 2008 show that women made 77 cents on the dollar compared to men for doing the same work.

Backed by an array of women's rights organizations, Congressional Democrats—currently led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in the House and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) in the Senate-- have been trying to make equal pay for American women a reality since 2005. President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, the first sweeping gender pay equity law, in 1963. That's forty-nine years the Equal Pay Act has gone without an update. The Paycheck Fairness Act, Mikulski and DeLauro’s bill that would provide the necessary updates, came close to passing in 2009 and 2010, when it passed the House but was defeated in the Senate.

But last Tuesday, June 5, all Senate Republicans voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act as one, like the Borg using the power of collective thought to liquidate the entire Starfleet armada. The final tally of "Yea" votes was 52, eight votes shy of the number needed to overcome a filibuster.

Re-applying her lipstick as a battle-hardened field general for American working women, an "enormously disappointed" Mikulski told the press after the vote that "we will be back. Though we lost the vote today, we are not giving up." Mikulski told women interested in seeing equal pay for equal work to "suit up" for the next Congress. There, she plans to introduce the Paycheck Fairness Act, which first went to Congress in 2009, again.

Fatima Goss Graves is vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center, a Washington, DC-based group that advocates for equal pay and other economic policies for women. “When the public is told about this bill, they like it and they understand it,” she said, adding that she supports Mikulski’s view that reintroducing the bill yet again is the right move. “When you have something that when polled is extraordinarily popular, and has come so close to becoming law, it warrants bringing to the floor pretty frequently.”

The Paycheck Fairness Act would update the 1964 Equal Pay Act in a few major ways.It would force employers to cite a “business reason” for paying unequal wages to men and women. Under current law, employers don’t even have to give a specific reason.

“Opponents of the bill have tried to make a lot of hay out of that change,” Goss Graves said. But, she went on, making employers give a “business reason,” rather than some vague other reason, for paying one all-female group of workers less, is similar to what is required under other civil rights laws. “This is something that should be familiar to these employers,” she said.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against someone for asking about the employer’s wage practices or disclosing their own wages. “Right now,” said Goss Graves, “women can get fired for simply talking about wages.”

It would allow workers to sue employers for damages resulting from pay discrimination on the basis of sex. For instance, if a woman was fired for asking about her employer’s wage practices, and then she had to move to a new city to get another job, she may be able to claim that she was injured by the employer and could be awarded an amount corresponding to that injury, not just the current limit of two years’ worth of back pay.

It would bring the Equal Pay Act of 1964 into line with other civil rights statutes that employers must follow, putting pay discrimination against women on par with pay discrimination against other groups. Goss Graves put it this way: “It makes no sense that sex-based discrimination would be treated differently from other types of discrimination.”

Summarizing the Paycheck Fairness Act, Goss Graves said it “would make employees more aware of when discrimination is occurring, and give them more ways to challenge it when it occurs.”

“For employers,” Goss Graves added, “it would provide the right incentives for them to properly correct pay inequities in the workplace.” Indeed, some in the business community agree that the bill is needed. “Certainly, women-owned businesses have backed this bill,” said Goss Graves. “There certainly are business-related groups that have supported it.”

Organized labor also wanted the bill to pass, predictably—but unions may also have seen the vote as a way to publicly shame Congressional GOP members about their record of voting against women’s rights. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler wrote in an op-ed on the MomsRising.org website, “Tuesday’s vote will show whether many in the Republican Party are really serious when they say they are not conducting a war against women. “

Much was made among women’s rights groups of the 2009 passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which yanked open the window of time women have to file claims of gender-based pay discrimination. It effectively gave women greater access to the courts to redress the unequal pay situations at their workplaces. The Paycheck Fairness Act is a broader bill, addressing, among other things, workers’ own awareness of pay inequity. “People often aren’t even aware of what they’ve lost because of pay discrimination,” said Goss Graves.

Raising awareness among the public about the need for the Paycheck Fairness Act is exactly what Goss Graves said she plans to do until it is re-introduced in the next Congress. “As always, we’re going to continue to educate the public about this issue,” she said. “We have not given up on the possibility of this moving forward.”

In the interim, however, she said that there is “a range of things” the Obama administration can do to advance the rights of women in the workplace, short of Congressional passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. One thing the Department of Labor can do now, she said, is to re-institute a survey it used to do of federal contractors to uncover pay inequities among them. “It was a part of the Department of Labor’s practices over ten years ago,” said Goss Graves. “The compensation survey will provide [the Department of Labor] with the right sort of information to allow it to have more rigorous enforcement of federal contractors.”

Meanwhile, Goss Graves echoed Mikulski’s disappointment in the absence of Republicans willing to break party lines to vote for the Paycheck Fairness Act, and laid the blame squarely on the voting system in the Senate. “There is no question that a handful of people can stop something like this from going forward,” she said. “That’s a problem.”


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