By Kara Alaimo
Monday, September 4, 2006
This Labor Day, working women face a stubborn gender-based wage gap. State legislators around the country have introduced bills to close the gap, but opponents argue the proposals are difficult to enforce and will discourage business investment.
Members of the Maryland chapter of Business and Professional Women--a national organization of working women based in Washington, D.C.--lobbied for a state commission to study gender-based wage discrimination that was vetoed by the governor but overridden by the state Legislature in January. The Louisiana Equal Pay Act was voted down in the state House on June 8 and a similar bill in Kentucky passed in the House in March but died in committee in the Senate. And in New York, Business and Professional Women members are rallying around the New York State Fair Pay Act, which has been introduced in the state Legislature every year since 1999 and passed in Assembly every year since 2002, but still lacks a Senate sponsor.
Similar laws are on the books in many states, and the Paycheck Fairness Act and Fair Pay Act are being considered on the federal level.
Business associations--and lawmakers sympathetic to the interests of businesses--have opposed these state bills, arguing that such legislation would expose businesses to litigation and foster a poor investment climate in their states.
"Businesses aren't particularly fond of going to states where there is a greater likelihood that they'll be sued," said Jim Patterson, vice president of governmental relations at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry in Baton Rouge, which earlier this year successfully lobbied against the Equal Pay for Women Act. Patterson believes such a statute invites ungrounded litigation against businesses from disgruntled employees because of the difficulty of comparing jobs and qualifications.
Louisiana Assemblywoman Shirley Bowen said she opposed the legislation because of the broad interpretation it leaves to courts in judging the meaning of "substantially equal" work, which would require equal pay. "In my mind, if we write a law, it should be clear when someone is breaking it," she said.
Bowen also argued wage differences between men and women can be attributable to factors other than discrimination. "A woman age 54 in the workplace doing substantially the same work as a man might not get the same amount," she said. "But their work history and experience isn't going to be the same and both people's futures and loyalties with the company have to be factored in. Traditionally, women follow their husbands on job transfers."
Lawmakers including New York Assemblywoman Susan John, who sponsored the New York State Fair Pay Act, believe such attitudes are hurting women.
"The business community says wages should be determined by the market, which is the same as saying that if they can get away with (discrimination) in the marketplace then they should be able to do it," she said.
John said the historic reason for paying women less was that they were not trying to support families. While she believes this reason has never been valid, she says with the increase in households headed by single mothers this disparity has come to hurt not only women, but also children.
"This is the difference between being able to be independent and being dependent," she said. It's the difference between women who don't leave abusive husbands because they can't support their children. Without economic justice and equality, women are not going to be full partners, and we will never be fully equal."
Kara Alaimo earned a bachelor of arts degree from New York University, where she studied journalism and gender and sexuality. She lives and writes in New York City, where she works for the Mayor's Office and studies urban affairs.
National Committee on Pay Equity:
The WAGE Project:
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