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Paycheck fairness: A moral obligation to America’s workforce (Rep. Rosa DeLauro)

Over a half-century ago, President Dwight Eisenhower told Congress that “legislation to apply the principle of equal pay for equal work without discrimination because of sex is a matter of simple justice.” Seven years after those words, under President Kennedy, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act to end the “serious and endemic problem” of unequal wages. And yet, here in 2010, we all know that the Act is not working as intended in its current form.

In America today, women make up half of our workforce — and yet, they still only make 77 cents on the dollar as compared to men. Looking closer, one finds that African-American women make just 68 cents on the dollar, and Hispanic women only make 59 cents.

These numbers are shocking. And they add up, costing women anywhere from $400,000 to $2 million over a lifetime. That means less income in the end toward calculating pension and in some cases Social Security benefits. As a result, 70 percent of older adults living in poverty are women.

Sadly, we know that pay discrimination is still pervasive in our economy. To take only two recent examples: A jury recently found that the pharmaceutical company Novartis has been systematically underpaying its female employees — $105 less per month, on average, than the men with similar experience and tenure. And a New York Times story last month informed us that in 1995, six years before a sex discrimination lawsuit was filed, Wal-Mart knew that its male employees were earning 19 percent more than women, and that men were five and a half times as likely to be promoted in salaried, management positions.

So this is a systemic problem, and a particularly troubling one in light of the current crisis in our labor markets. With more women forced to take on the full burden of keeping their families afloat, and more two-income couples stretching every single penny in their possession to make ends meet, the problem of women earning smaller paychecks for no good reason becomes even more acute for the entire family.

Very early in this Congress, we passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which ensured that women who are discriminated against have the right to sue as long as their unequal pay continues. This was a good first step. The Paycheck Fairness Act is the next. In fact, its passage was the central recommendation made by the National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force this week

The Act ensures that employers who try to justify paying a man more than a woman for the same job must show the disparity is not sex-based; but job related and necessary. It prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who discuss or disclose salary information with their co-workers. And it strengthens the available remedies to include punitive and compensatory damages, thus bringing equal pay law into line with all other civil rights law.

So, in other words, the Paycheck Fairness Act is a modest, commonsense solution to the lingering problem of pay inequity. That is why it has been endorsed by over 200 organizations, including the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, the American Association of University Women, Business and Professional Women, and the National Women’s Law Center.

The House of Representatives has already passed this critical legislation twice now. On behalf of all of America’s women, I urge my colleagues in the Senate to move and, at long last, to make this bill the law of the land.


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