Paycheck Fairness Act Poised to Beef Up Women’s Rights at Work

Michelle Chen

President Obama, with Lilly Ledbetter (R) and Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski (L), signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009. Congress may vote on The Paycheck Fairness Act, focused on employer accountability, after the November elections.

Washington has studiously avoided pro-labor legislation all year, but come November, the Senate may finally get around to some unfinished business for women in the workplace.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, slated for consideration after the election break, would plug critical loopholes in the 1963 Equal Pay Act and help narrow the gender wage gap. A full-time woman worker today still earns about 77 cents for every dollar a man makes overall. The gap between black and Latina women and their white male counterpart is even wider — 62 and 53 cents, respectively.

The recession has further strained the wage gap: millions of families headed by single moms struggle with massive job losses, cuts to social programs, and, for those lucky enough to still have work, lower pay. Even in two-parent homes, unemployment frequently leaves women in the role of sole breadwinner. Gender discrimination trickles into the public benefits system as well, as marginal women workers often have less access than men to unemployment insurance and in their later years, retirement income.

While the Paycheck Fairness Act couldn’t dismantle the superstructure of discrimination against women (see the latest Government Accountability Office report about the persistence of gender inequality at the managerial level), the legislation would beef up enforcement and create real legal remedies beyond the limited allowances for damages under the Equal Pay Act.

The ACLU breaks down the main provisions:

  • requiring employers to demonstrate that wage differentials are based on factors other than sex;
  • prohibiting retaliation against workers who inquire about their employers’ wage practices or disclose their own wages; 
  • permitting reasonable comparisons between employees within clearly defined geographical areas to determine fair wages; 
  • strengthening penalties for equal pay violations; 
  • directing the Department of Labor to assist employers and collect wage-related data; and 
  • authorizing additional training for Equal Employment Opportunity Commission staff to better identify and handle wage disputes.

As a complement to last year’s Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which removed barriers to fighting gender wage discrimination in court, the PFA would strengthen the legal platform for holding discriminatory employers accountable. In a sense, the greatest impact of the law may fall not on individual employers, but on labor law itself, because it finally inscribes in our civil rights protections a long-overdue recognition of the struggle for women’s equality at work.

For more on Lily Ledbetter, the legislation she fought for and pay disparity, read this new In These Times interview with Lilly Ledbetter.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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