Ensuring that women earn a living equal to their efforts and the efforts of their male counterparts has been a priority for President Obama since the very beginning of his administration. Four years ago today, President Obama made the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act the first bill he signed into law upon taking office. That important legislation, which remedied the damage done by the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber, ensured that women would still have the opportunity to get into court to fight pay discrimination. The legislation restored the law that had been in place for decades by reinstating the time limit for bringing Title VII and other pay discrimination cases – giving employees 180 days to sue from the time they received their last discriminatory paycheck, and thereby giving women like Lilly Ledbetter a reasonable opportunity to file a claim after learning of discrimination.
Four years later, it is time to take the next step on the journey. How fitting it is that for this anniversary of the Ledbetter Act, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act. The bill would provide a much-needed update to the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by closing some of the loopholes that have made the law less effective over time. So while the Ledbetter Act gave employees back their day in court to challenge a wage gap, the Paycheck Fairness Act would give employees the legal tools they need to challenge the wage gap itself. Together, these acts can help create a climate where wage discrimination is no longer tolerated and women can finally earn wages equal to their efforts and the efforts of their male counterparts.
There is no question that changes are necessary. Currently, women are still being paid, on average, 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man in the workplace. The numbers are even lower for women of color, where African American women are earning 64 cents and Latinas are earning 54 cents for every dollar earned by a white male.
The Paycheck Fairness Act would require that employers who pay their male and female employees differently for doing the same work must have a business justification that is not based on the employee’s sex. It would also provide more remedies for wage discrimination and prohibit retaliation against workers who inquire about wages or disclose their own wages to their co-workers. This provision is particularly significant when you consider that Ms. Ledbetter could not sue for so long because she did not know about her discriminatorily low wages due to a company nondisclosure policy. Nearly 50 percent of employers either discourage or outright ban employees from discussing their wages. As Lilly herself discusses, had the Paycheck Fairness Act been the law when she was working at Goodyear, she would have been able to find out that her pay was less than her male co-workers without fear of retaliation and would have more easily been able to do something about it. The Administration has repeatedly endorsed the Paycheck Fairness Act as the next step in helping workers fight for and achieve fair pay.
So, on this anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, let’s follow President Obama’s call to action. Without enactment of the Paycheck Fairness Act, our journey for equal pay will not be complete.
Vagins is senior legislative counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office and co-chairwoman of the National Paycheck Fairness Coalition.