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Equal pay is key to the economic recovery for women workers

Equal pay is key to the economic recovery for women workers
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The two major crises that have roiled the country over the past year — the coronavirus pandemic and a long overdue reckoning on the prevalence of racial injustice — have focused new scrutiny on an old problem: the need for better policies to protect women’s jobs and wages. Both crises have been exacerbated by policymakers’ repeated failure to address longstanding inequities and strengthen workplace protections that could bolster women’s economic standing, thus threatening the prospects for a full economic recovery. 

In this environment, it is fitting that the U.S. House of Representatives is preparing, again, to consider the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that has languished for decades yet includes many much-needed policies to improve workers’ wages, from strengthening equal pay protections and enforcement to combatting discriminatory pay practices. Its failure to become law, in large part due to Senate inaction, is a stark reminder of lawmakers’ unwillingness to disrupt a status quo built on undervaluing women workers and the stubborn persistence of pay discrimination.

Before the pandemic, the median annual earnings for women working full-time, year-round in 2019 was $47,299, or 82 percent of men’s earnings. Most women of color, particularly Black, Hispanic, Native American and many subgroups of Asian women, experience a wider wage gap reflecting the intersection of gender, race and ethnic biases. Many of the factors that contribute to the gender wage gap are front and center during this pandemic, such as gaps in employment, reduced hours, time away from the workforce to fulfill caregiving responsibilities, and ever-present compounding factors like bias, stereotyping and discrimination. Not only does the gender wage gap shortchange women daily, it also grows over time. Over the course of a 40-year career, women lose more than $400,000, with the losses much greater for women of color.  

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The pandemic has surged at the same time that the country has been engaged in a national conversation about systemic racism and the consistent devaluing and dehumanizing of Black, Brown and Asian lives. Such biases are entrenched in the wages of many women of color, who experience the largest pay gaps and earn substantially less than their white female and male counterparts. These larger gaps make it harder for women of color to build wealth and the financial reserves that they and their families need during times of crisis.

The raging pandemic has made abundantly clear that women — particularly women of color — are the backbone of the nation’s economy. Women have kept the economy running throughout the pandemic as the majority of essential workers and also as caregivers, whose labor sustains healthy families and makes all other work possible. Jobs in the service and care sector are disproportionately held by women of color and are among the lowest paid, with too few benefits. At the same time, women’s job losses during the pandemic have compounded economic pressures on families. Women lost nearly 1 million more jobs than men between February and December 2020, with women of color bearing the brunt of these losses. Further, the increased need for caregiving at home has led to hundreds of thousands of women leaving the labor force entirely. These shifts have jeopardized the economic stability of families, many of which rely on women’s contributions to make ends meet. 

Advancing equal pay would help ensure that women, and indeed all workers, are paid fairly for their work and are better positioned financially to weather current and future crises. Among its provisions, the Paycheck Fairness Act would promote pay transparency, protect workers from retaliation if they discuss their pay with others and tighten defenses that have been misused by employers to escape liability for pay disparities. It would also limit employers’ reliance on salary history when making hiring and compensation decisions — an approach that has proven effective at narrowing the wage gap for women and people of color and could help disrupt wage-setting rooted in past discrimination and minimize the impact of reduced hours or time out of the workforce during the pandemic on future earnings. The bill also would require the regular collection of employer pay data, which may be a crucial tool to help pinpoint problems and monitor employer pay practices. 

The criticisms of the Paycheck Fairness Act are predictable, tired and misplaced. It would not prevent employers from providing Christmas bonuses — unless they plan to discriminate when doing so; it would not lead to an explosion of cases — litigation is too expensive and takes too long for most workers.

Women are critical players in our nation’s economy. As essential workers, part of the unemployed and as breadwinners, they must be centered in our recovery efforts. This requires a real commitment to equal pay that is more than empty rhetoric. Concrete action through reasonable measures such as the Paycheck Fairness Act is sorely needed and long overdue. To ignore the lessons of the pandemic is to continue failing women, and indeed all workers, who deserve fair pay now. 

Robin Bleiweis is a research associate for women’s economic security with the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Jocelyn Frye is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.