Senate Dems propose federal grants to boost women's salary negotiation skills

Senate Democrats in June will take up legislation that establishes federal grants to train girls and women to improve their salary negotiation skills. 

The legislation would also require the collection of data from companies on how they pay people to better enforce federal fair-pay laws.

Before leaving for the Memorial Day break, Senate Democrats scheduled a procedural vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act for June 5. The bill, S. 3220 from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), is a Democratic effort to counter what they say is a Republican "war on women," and appears to be an attempt to keep that issue in the forefront of political discussion as the November elections approach.

"Despite the enactment of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, many women continue to earn significantly lower pay than men for equal work," the bill says in its findings section. "These pay disparities exist in both the private and governmental sectors."

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To overcome these ongoing disparities, the bill authorizes a new program under which the Secretary of Labor can make federal grants to entities that "carry out negotiation skills training programs for girls and women." Eligible entities are state or local governments, or private non-profit or community-based organizations.

"The training provided through the program shall help girls and women strengthen their negotiation skills to allow the girls and women to obtain higher salaries and rates of compensation that are equal to those paid to similarly situated male employees," the bill says.

The legislation does not specify how much grant money can be handed out by the Secretary of Labor, although it authorizes $15 million to implement the entire bill.

The bill would also amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to require the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to assess the data it has on how much people are paid, and to identify other possible sources of data that could be used to implement fair-pay laws. Once that work is done, the Commission would be required to "issue regulations to provide for the collection of pay information data from employers as described by the sex, race, and national origin of employees."

Elsewhere, the bill makes several changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Under that law, employers cannot discriminate when it comes to salary on the basis of sex, but Mikulski's bill would further clarify the law to say discrimination can only happen due to a "bona fide factor other than sex, such as education, training, or experience."

In addition, employers would have to show that these factors are job related and based on a business necessity, and employees would have an opportunity to show that alternative employment practices exist that do not require a differential in pay.

It would also strengthen language in the 1938 law that prevents retaliation against women to seek redress under the law, by clarifying that women who make charges of discrimination or seek salary information about other employees cannot be let go.

Anyone in violation of the sex discrimination rules could be held liable for compensatory and punitive damages, although the bill exempts the federal government by specifying that "the United States shall not be liable for punitive damages."