April may be the cruelest month, according to Chaucer, but it is also a time when the financial discrimination against women becomes clear.
As the American Association of University Women cleverly pointed out to the SLO City Council recently, women in general earn only about 75% of what men do for the same occupations. AAUW presented the SLO City Council with “smaller” cookies, baked specifically to point up this income inequality, on the occasion of “Equal Pay Day,” April 17th. This is the day in the current year, when the wages of women finally equal the wages men earned in the past 12 months. That is, it takes women fifteen and a half months to earn the same as men earn in 12. Of course, for minority women this number is even bigger; for women without any formal education beyond high school the number is bigger. But even among white, college graduates, there is still an earnings gap.
How fitting that Equal Pay Day this year fell on the same day as our income tax returns were due.
Public employers – governments – have led the way in eliminating wage discrimination, because listings for jobs are more standardized, and, by definition, public. If you are applying for a GS job (federal government listing) you know what the entry salary is, what the step increases are, and what the top pay can be for any particular job title. Not so in private business, where not only does the employer set wage scales (often without benefit of union input), but they can keep those pay scales secret. Secrecy is one way that employers perpetuate the practice of paying women and people of color less. It has been standard practice at most business establishments to discourage and even punish employees who ask for comparative salary information or who discuss their compensation with others.
Lilly Ledbetter, the Alabama woman who has become an icon for fair pay, had no idea that the men at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company who held the same positions as she were receiving much higher salaries. Company-imposed secrecy about salaries helped perpetuate the clearly illegal pay disparity. Ledbetter sued, won a lower court judgment compensating her for 19 years of pay discrimination, but lost every cent under the conservative-majority Supreme Court. The court told Ledbetter she should have filed a complaint of pay discrimination within 180 days of her first unfair paycheck — even though her employer’s wage secrecy kept her in the dark about the pay disparity, and she might have lost her job if she had even asked about others’ salaries.
It took a new federal law, known as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, to undo the Supreme Court’s preposterous ruling. But while the act allows women to sue when they discover they have been underpaid, it does not end the unfair practice of pay secrecy. The Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 1519/S. 797) would prohibit retaliation and require disclosure of compensation data from private sector employers, and help guarantee a fairer workplace where employees, in particular women employees, will not be penalized by lower pay or fear retaliation if they attempt to determine whether they are being treated equally. Advocates have been trying to push this bill to the floor for a vote, but it has little chance of passage in the current Congress.
But the president does have it within his power to issue an executive order to protect workers employed by private federal contractors against retaliation for disclosing or asking about their wages, thus assuring that employees of these contractors are not unfairly discriminated against in compensation or punished for discussing their salaries. It’s a good first step, as many of these federal contractors are the biggest companies, with the most employees. NOW urges everyone concerned about wage inequality to contact the White House and let Obama know you support his efforts to end paycheck unfairness. Call: (202) 456-1111 or fax: (202) 456-2461.