Tuesday, April 20, is Equal Pay Day. Women earn, on average, 77 cents for every dollar that men earn, and Equal Pay Day is the date on which a woman worker’s earnings are equivalent to a man’s average earnings for the previous year (the wage gap is even greater for women of color and women with disabilities).
While we’ve come a long way since the days when gender-based salary inequities were enshrined in law and corporate policies, this wage disparity shows that there is still much work to be done. A recent report from Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress found that approximately 41% of the wage disparity cannot be explained by differences in experience, specific work performed, education or other non-discriminatory factors.
For nearly 50 years, federal law has prohibited consideration of the sex of an employee or applicant for employment as a basis for paying different wages for the same work. In 1963, a year before the enactment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act (EPA) to end wage disparities among employees who performed work requiring substantially equal skill, effort and responsibility under similar working conditions. At the time, Congress found that sex-based wage discrimination contributed to underutilization of the labor force and unfair competition.
The EEOC has been at the forefront of the battle for equal pay since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited sex-based discrimination in employment. In 1978 the EEOC also assumed responsibility for enforcing the Equal Pay Act. The Commission also fights pay discrimination through the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Commission has 14 cases currently in litigation that allege sex-based wage discrimination. The EEOC is also a key member of the President’s National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force, which is designed to “improve compliance, public education, and enforcement of equal pay laws.”
One of the EEOC’s most significant lawsuits involving wage discrimination was EEOC v. Morgan Stanley, a Title VII lawsuit alleging, among other things, discrimination in compensation and promotions on the basis of sex. This case, filed by the New York District Office in 2001, settled for $54 million in 2004. The settlement also required the company to institute developmental programs to improve the compensation and promotion of women in the firm. Similarly, the EEOC’s Chicago District Office filed a major wage discrimination case in 2006 on behalf of women, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians against a mid-west manufacturer. EEOC v. Woodward Governor Co. settled in 2007 for $9.7 million.
The EEOC has also used other tools to fight compensation discrimination. The Commission issued critical enforcement guidance including watershed guidance on compensation discrimination between male and female sports coaches. Most recently, the Commission recognized the ways in which discrimination on the basis of caregiving can unfairly limit women’s pay in its enforcement guidance on “Unlawful Disparate Treatment of Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities."
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed his first law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which overturned the Supreme Court’s interpretation of when a person must file a charge of wage discrimination. The Ledbetter Act restored the position the EEOC had championed for decades: that the receipt of each paycheck representing a discriminatory wage constitutes a separate violation of the law, and that a charge of discrimination is timely if filed within 180 (or 300) days of receiving unequal compensation.
In signing the bill, the President noted “equal pay is by no means just a women's issue -- it's a family issue.” That has been particularly true during this most recent economic downturn, with many families relying much more heavily on the earnings of women family members. When those wages are depressed by discrimination, the entire family suffers. As the President noted, wage discrimination affects “households where one breadwinner is paid less than she deserves; that's the difference between affording the mortgage -- or not; between keeping the heat on, or paying the doctor bills -- or not.”
As Lilly Ledbetter herself noted a few months ago in an address to EEOC employees, when she began her quest for parity with her male colleagues, she did not want special treatment; she wanted only to be paid the same wages her male colleagues earned for performing the same work that she successfully performed for many years. She simply insisted that she should “ be treated fair[ly].”
To ensure that all workers are treated fairly – nothing more and nothing less – is the heart of the Equal Pay Act and the reason that we recognize Equal Pay Day today. The EEOC stands ready to help all “Lilly Ledbetters” in their quest to overcome wage discrimination.