(Note: The writer is answering the question: “Is the Paycheck Fairness Act a boon for American women?”)
SILVER SPRING, Md. — Equal Pay Day, held annually in April, symbolizes the additional time women work for the same pay the average male worker earned last year.
The average pay gap between female and male employees is now 80 percent, stubbornly refusing to budge. It’s even worse for women of color: Compared to white, non-Hispanic men, Latinas earn 53 percent, Native American women 58 percent, and black women 61 percent.
Since 2001, the gap has hovered around 75-80 percent and will not fully narrow until 2106, given current progress.
The 1963 Equal Pay Act (EPA) has made pay discrimination by gender illegal since the Kennedy administration. But this law clearly isn’t enough, if we’re still talking about significant pay disparities more than a half century later.
The Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA), authored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) is designed to bring the Equal Pay Act into the 21st century. For only the second time since 1997, the House of Representatives recently passed the PFA.
The PFA attacks pay inequity in four key ways:
— It bans employers from asking job applicants how much they made in previous jobs.
Even a relatively small pay gap in an entry level job can have lifelong consequences. When salary increases are a percentage of current salary, an underpaid female employee continually loses ground to male counterparts. But fixing it isn’t as simple as finding a new job.
Many employers require applicants to provide current salary information and then can use that information to lowball lower-paid applicants — typically women and people of color. Or even more insidiously, they may justify paying a male employee more, if his previous salary was higher. Banning salary history questions forces employers to determine what the job is worth, not the person.
— It prevents employers from banning salary conversations with coworkers.
Pay discrimination can flourish in workplaces where salaries are a highly confidential secret and known only to a handful of people.
Without transparent salary information, you may have no idea about salary differences among people doing the same job. Some companies even threaten to punish employees who discuss this information. While having an explicit policy can violate federal labor laws, employers now count on workers being too intimidated to risk discipline or termination. It’s hard to fight unequal pay without knowing what others are making, so the PFA clarifies that companies can’t ban these conversations or punish employees who have them.
— It fixes current problems with how the Equal Pay Act has been interpreted in court.
One EPA provision allows employers to defend pay disparities that are due to a “factor other than sex.” Judges have interpreted this language so broadly that it’s difficult to enforce the law. The PFA would limit this exception to “business necessity” and require an employer to consider alternative solutions without a pay differential.
— It requires employers to be more transparent about pay and to share that information with the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The PFA equips these agencies to detect more violations and improve enforcement, by collecting and providing public access to employment-related data and conducting research, education, and outreach. Even with the different career choices men and women make, research already shows that discrimination explains approximately one-third of pay differences. With the right data, this problem is solvable.
We’re finally paying more attention to the inequities women in the workplace experience these days, between the #MeToo movement and Hollywood actresses going public about huge salary disparities with their male co-stars. Equal pay can and should be a bipartisan issue.
Yet only seven Republicans voted for the PFA, with Senate prospects uncertain. Let’s set aside partisan conflict and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. Otherwise, at the rate we’re going now, we’ll still be talking about pay inequity in the 22nd century.
Paula Brantner is the senior adviser to Workplace Fairness and the president and principal of PB Work Solutions. She is a graduate of UC-Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI. Readers may write her at 8121 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, MD 20910.