Let’s make Equal Pay Day obsolete: It’s common sense

Let’s make Equal Pay Day obsolete: It’s common sense
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Today, women across the country once again are recognizing Equal Pay Day, when women working full time finally catch up to what men made in 2017.  On average, women in the United States must work 15 months to earn what men did in just 12. Black women, Latinas  and mothers have to work even longer.

Every day, women working the same jobs as their male counterparts take home less money. The pay gap exists across industry, in every occupation, and can start as soon as a woman graduates college. Women represent 56 percent of those enrolled in colleges and universities, make up 47 percent of the U.S. labor force, and increasingly are becoming the sole or co-breadwinner in their families.  Yet, women still face an uphill battle for economic security, in large part because of gender- and raced-based pay gaps. The pay gap means less money for everyday expenses, education, home ownership and retirement.

As a civil rights attorney, my ultimate hope is to make my job obsolete. I feel the same way about Equal Pay Day. I would like to stop commemorating it because we have ended the disparities through robust federal and state protections. Yet the federal government not only is failing to provide new tools to protect its workers, the Trump administration actually is removing practical protections.


So it is incumbent upon us to take action.  Here are a few commonsense things that need to be done.

In 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission created a wage data collection, designed to help the EEOC better identify trends with respect to discrimination in pay based on gender, race or ethnicity. Data are necessary to shine a light on problematic pay practices, as well as to encourage employers to proactively identify and correct improper pay disparities. I believe when things get measured, they get fixed. That’s why I was proud to work as part of the team that developed this tool at the EEOC. However, in August 2017, the Trump administration halted the implementation of the salary data collection. The decision was not a final one. The EEOC has the power to move forward by submitting this data collection again.

While the administration is effectively rolling back protections, Congress has stalled on strengthening our anti-discrimination laws. This year we celebrate the 55th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, but over time court decisions and loopholes have weakened the act. Look no further than the case of Aileen Rizo, a math instructor in California. She discovered a newly-hired male colleague with less experience made a higher salary than she because of his prior salary. The court held that using prior salary alone to calculate current wages can be permissible under the Equal Pay Act as a “factor other than sex.”

Rizo appealed the decision and on Monday, April 9, the Ninth Circuit reversed previous decisions and held that using prior salary alone, as a “factor other that sex,” or in combination with other factors cannot justify a wage differential. Courts in other regions have found similarly. The problem is that using prior salary alone to calculate current wages carries forward existing pay disparities, which primarily impacts the women whose prior paychecks may have been tainted by discrimination.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, pending in Congress, addresses the “factor other than sex” provision and prohibits reliance on salary history during hiring. The bill would strengthen the Equal Pay Act by taking meaningful steps to close those loopholes, strengthening penalties for equal pay violations, prohibiting retaliation against workers who voluntarily discuss or disclose wages, and supporting data collection and research. Yet the bill has yet to be brought to the floor for a vote.

Women refuse to wait for progress from the federal government. Our states are taking the initiative to pass equal pay laws. But pay equity shouldn’t be based on winning the geography lottery. Certain states have weak or no equal pay protections, leaving employees vulnerable; hence, the need for uniform federal protections.

This election season, women across the country will hold elected officials accountable for their inaction regarding equal pay. Economic security for our families is at stake; fair pay is an issue voters care about. If legislators and agency officials want to strengthen the economy, they’ll take action on equal pay, prioritizing pay data collection and passing strong legislation.

Until then, pay inequity will be a stark reality for millions of women, and our economy will continue to leave trillions of dollars on the table.

Deborah J. Vagins is senior vice president of public policy and research at the American Association of University Women. She formerly was a chief of staff and principal attorney advisor at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the senior legislative counsel for civil rights at the American Civil Liberties Union.