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Paycheck Fairness Act seeks to end gender gap

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Legislators are taking another crack at ending gender wage discrimination with the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Re-introduced in January by Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the bill seeks to close the loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and bolster the protections of the recent Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

"The Paycheck Fairness Act is not just about pay fairness, it’s about strengthening our economy and a strong middle class," said Rep. Susan Davis (D-San Diego), a co-sponsor of the bill. "When every person in our society is given a level playing field, plays by the same rules and has a chance to succeed, the entire nation benefits."

Women are paid 77 percent of what men earn for completing the same work under similar conditions, according to the bill's sponsors, and the gap in pay costs women approximately $434,000 over their careers.

“Four years after the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed into law to keep the courthouse doors open, it's time to finish the job and stop wage discrimination from happening in the first place," Mikulski said in a statement announcing the legislation's introduction. "Equal pay is not just for our pocketbooks. It's about family checkbooks and getting it right in the law books. The Paycheck Fairness Act ensures that women will no longer be fighting on their own for equal pay for equal work."

The Fair Pay Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in January 2009, overturned the 180-day statute of limitations for women to contest pay discrimination. The law arose out of a lawsuit by Lilly Ledbetter, who lost her courtroom battle for pay discrimination because she didn't file her complaint until nearly 20 years had passed.

It took Ledbetter so long to file her claims because she didn't realize she was getting paid less than her male counterparts for equal work until many years later.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would require employers to show any pay disparity is truly related to job performance, and is not gender related.

The bill also would allow co-workers to openly discuss salary information regardless of company policy. Currently, in most states, employers can sue and punish employees for sharing such information, although that's not the case in California.

Additionally, the Paycheck Fairness Act would strengthen remedies for pay discrimination by increasing compensation women can seek, allowing them to not only seek back pay, but also punitive damages for pay discrimination.

"Women more and more are the breadwinners in the family … or share that role with a spouse," Davis said. "Women also face unique challenges -- balancing family and work. New census numbers show that the pay gap for women widens even more when they take maternity leave. The Paycheck Fairness Act creates transparency and allows workers to have a greater say in the process."

Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Chula Vista) is another member of the local delegation who is sponsoring the bill, and Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) also supports the bill.

"Equity of pay in the workplace is improved but there's still a longs way to go," Peters said. "It used to be 59 cents (per dollar of men's pay) and now it's closer to 77, but in the sense there's still discrimination, we should be willing to address that."

Duncan D. Hunter (R-El Cajon), however, opposes the bill. He said he thinks it's a trial lawyer's dream and would hurt job creation, even in a good economy, according to Hunter's spokesman.

The bill has twice failed to get through Congress, although it most recently only fell two votes shy in the Senate.

"I really see it increasing scrutiny when you have two employees -- one male, one female -- performing the same duties," said San Diego attorney Danielle Moore, a labor and employment partner for Fisher & Phillips. "For small employers, I don’t think it'll mean as much because they don’t have much job duplication. And for much larger companies, their salaries are pretty formulaic. They are conscious of wage disparities.

"So I think it's going to affect the midsized companies. It just creates an extra level of scrutiny every time you have two employees or more who perform the same duties."

While allowing colleagues to discuss compensation is supposed to deter companies from paying women less for the same job, the transparency can have a side of effect of causing hostility in the workplace, Moore said.

"It creates animosity among co-workers," she said when they find out they make less than their colleagues. "Diplomatically, it shouldn't be an issue if you're doing what you should be doing in the first place, and that is addressing poor performance from the onset. And making sure to praise and properly compensate employees that deserve it.

"When employees are happy, they are less likely to gripe about wages."

The bill also includes a grant program to strengthen salary negotiation and other workplace skills for women and requires the Department of Labor to enhance outreach and training efforts to eliminate pay disparities.

It has currently been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

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