(WOMENSENEWS)--It took 17 years and an anonymous note for Lilly Ledbetter to find out she was earning significantly less than men doing the same job.
The Supreme Court compounded the problem by telling her she waited too long to complain.
Congress fixed that setback--but the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first piece of legislation signed by President Obama, simply brought us back to where we'd been before.
The Paycheck Fairness Act, already passed by the House under the leadership of Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro and now pending in the Senate, is the critical next step. DeLauro calls the bill "a commonsense update to the Equal Pay Act, which has failed to provide women the tools to ensure they receive equal pay for equal work."
One such tool is the ability to share information about pay with co-workers. Lilly Ledbetter's employer, like many, prohibited that practice. The Paycheck Fairness Act would outlaw salary secrecy and retaliation.
Closing Giant Loopholes
The bill would also close what Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women, based in Washington, D.C., calls "loopholes the size of Mack trucks that have developed since the Equal Pay Act was passed 46 years ago."
Employers who pay women less than men for doing the same work simply have to argue that they relied on a "factor other than sex." Under the new law, employers would have to demonstrate that pay practices actually are related to job performance.
Another loophole has been a narrow definition of "establishment." Under the existing interpretation of the Equal Pay Act, only employees who work at the same physical place of business can be considered for wage comparison.
Paycheck Fairness clarifies that reasonable compensation comparisons can be made between employees within clearly defined geographical areas.
Some employers violate equal pay laws simply because they can. Paycheck Fairness would make that more difficult to do by bringing penalties in line with other civil rights abuses, permitting plaintiffs to be awarded compensatory and punitive damages. They could also become part of a class action legal claim--each woman affected is automatically included unless she opts out.
Other employers err out of ignorance. Paycheck Fairness now has provisions to increase training and education for employers, as well as for Equal Employment Opportunity Commission staff. It also sets up a competitive grant program to teach salary negotiation skills to women and girls.
The bill reinstates the Equal Opportunity Survey--suspended by the Bush administration-- which requires that all federal contractors submit data on employment practices such as hiring, promotions, terminations and pay.
Paycheck Fairness has new lead sponsors, Sen. Chris Dodd and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, both well-known champions of women's issues.
Thirty-one other senators have signed on as co-sponsors of the act, the most in the bill's history. A large coalition of women's, labor and civil rights groups are also engaged.
Advocates are hopeful for a September hearing and passage of the act by the end of the year.
As Lilly Ledbetter rightly states, passage of the Ledbetter bill without the Paycheck Fairness Act "is like giving someone a nail but not a hammer."
Like the Ledbetter act, Paycheck Fairness applies to women who do the same or similar jobs as male co-workers.
Since most women work in predominantly female jobs, we'll need a much larger toolkit to get genuine pay equity. But passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act would be one giant step in the right direction.
Ellen Bravo is a long-time feminist activist and author who teaches women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her most recent book is "Taking on the Big Boys, or Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business and the Nation."
For more information:
The Paycheck Fairness Act, AAUW
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