Jacqueline A. Berrien, Chair
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Tuesday, April 12, 2011 is Equal Pay Day. Women earn, on average, 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. Equal Pay Day marks the end of the extra period of time that a woman must work in order to earn what a man did the year before. The wage gap is even greater for women of color and women with disabilities.
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. On signing the EPA, President Kennedy said that the EPA “affirms our determination that when women enter the labor force they will find equality in their pay envelope.”
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.
We have come a long way since the days when gender-based inequities in access to jobs and payment of wages were sanctioned by law, but studies show that a significant portion of the wage disparity cannot be explained by differences in experience, specific work performed, education or other non-discriminatory factors. This persistent disparity is a stark reminder that the EEOC’s work to end every form of sex discrimination in the workplace -- including compensation discrimination -- is still unfinished business.
What may start off as a relatively minor pay gap for women just entering the work force can grow over the course of a woman’s work history, especially when it is accompanied by other forms of compensation discrimination, such as in payment of bonuses or contributions to retirement accounts. By the time of retirement, the real costs of the wage gap to a woman and her family is not just lost wages, but also lowered pensions and Social Security benefits. This negative impact is even greater for single mothers, and households where a woman is the primary wage-earner.
The EEOC is a key member of the National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force, which was launched by President Obama to “improve compliance, public education, and enforcement of equal pay laws.” As part of the Task Force, the EEOC is working to improve interagency coordination and strengthen enforcement of wage discrimination laws, and to increase outreach, education and public awareness concerning compensation discrimination. Beginning today, EEOC offices across the country will be holding public education and outreach events - free and open to all - to raise awareness of this issue.
As part of its litigation efforts, the Commission recently brought cases against two national employers who engaged in wage discrimination. The EEOC has used other tools to fight compensation discrimination. For example, recognizing the ways in which discrimination on the basis of caregiving can unfairly and disproportionately depress women’s earnings, the Commission issued enforcement guidance on “Unlawful Disparate Treatment of Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities.”
In 2009, President Obama signed 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 said, “I intend to send a clear message: That making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone. That there are no second class citizens in our workplaces.” As Lilly Ledbetter herself noted 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].”
Ensuring fair treatment is at the heart of everything the EEOC does. As we recognize Equal Pay Day today, we acknowledge that working women and their families suffer when unlawful wage discrimination prevails. Not only on Equal Pay Day, but everyday, the EEOC is working throughout the country to promote compliance with, and ensure full and effective enforcement of federal laws prohibiting sex-based compensation discrimination.