(WOMENSENEWS)–For all the attention, expense and 10 years of legal maneuvering that led to the Supreme Court’s decision last month against the female workers of Wal-Mart, the basic question is still unanswered: Is Wal-Mart guilty of widespread, long term wage discrimination?
Despite the evidence that this monolithic company flourished at the expense of employees, the lead plaintiff Betty Dukes and other women will have to tough it out, either as individuals or in smaller groups. These tenacious women vow to fight on, not because of a big payout, but because what they really want is for Wal-Mart to change its ways.
Now that the Supreme Court has refused to certify as many as 1.5 million female employees as a class, that’s not going to happen without public outcry and the political will to pass stronger wage discrimination laws.
Unequal pay, unequal promotion, and unequal opportunity for jobs that provide a living wage create a "pay your bills" gap for women around the country.
Nationally, on average, a woman misses out on about $10,000 in wages each year. How do you count that? A year’s worth of food? Months of rent or 2500 gallons of gas? Childcare or health insurance?
Family Checkbook Issue
This is not a women’s issue, it is a family-checkbook issue.
With more than 6-in-10 women acting as primary or co-breadwinners, everyone is affected when female workers are undervalued, including local economies and tax bases. In New York the wage gap equals $22 billion lost each year, which is a lot of revenue not being spent here.
Ending wage discrimination was the goal of the Equal Pay Act signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 when the retro TV series "Man Men" was a reality and women struggled for a place in the paid work force.
The Equal Pay Act requires employers to pay all employees equally for equal work, regardless of gender. It was a major step at the time. Loopholes and limited sanctions in the law, however, has meant progress in closing the wage gap has been unacceptably slow, about half-a-cent annually over 50 years.
The federal Paycheck Fairness Act–which almost passed in the U.S. Senate last year– provides a 21st Century update to this 20th Century law.
It would give the Equal Pay Act teeth by increasing penalties for violators and providing the government with new tools such as data collection and programming to promote better wage practices.
Freedom to Discuss Wages
Critically, the Paycheck Fairness Act would also protect workers from retaliation if they choose to discuss their salaries. More than 60 percent of workers report fear of retaliation as a reason they don’t deal with wage inequity.
If employers restrict workers’ ability to share salary information women can’t find out if they are earning less than they should. With salary information, workers have the opportunity to address inequities in real-time, not years later when courts may decide they waited too long.
In New York, coalitions of advocates have been working to pass a similar bill. As it has annually since 2002, our Assembly passed the NYS Fair Pay Act this April. As usual it got stuck in Republican-controlled Senate committees. In a compromise effort, this year Senator Liz Krueger carved out the key "wage secrecy" portion to stand alone as a single bill. She vows to bring it back in the next term and work for passage.
Not willing to rely on the state and federal legislative successes, New York City is mounting a grassroots campaign. Elected officials are responding to the calls of our coalitions – the New York Women’s Agenda and its Equal Pay Coalition NYC – to ferret out and respond to disparities.
NYC Gets First Gender Analysis
Comptroller John Liu helped by producing the first gender-equity analysis of New York City’s public and private sector work force, based on data that has been readily available for some time. It provides a snapshot look at job sectors. Workers and agencies can now see how they are faring and have a chance to respond.
Council Members Letitia James and Julissa Ferreras–champions of female wage earners–are using this report to develop remedies. Both are writing pay-equity legislation applicable to city law. The comptroller’s office is also looking at some key report findings, such as gender segregation in certain fields and a wider wage gap for female city employees who have children.
With Wal-Mart seeking to enter the New York City market, the Dukes v. Wal-Mart decision has special significance.
City Council hearings called by Speaker Christine Quinn this winter spotlighted questionable workplace practices and drew crowds of protesters. Elected officials queried and cajoled. Now our question is, what will be done to ensure that Wal-Mart –and every employer – creates and maintains equitable workplace practices? That will take more action than talk.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has been wrong before. Ask Lilly Ledbetter who took her discrimination case there only to be denied.
Congress corrected that ruling by passing the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed by President Barack Obama. Now it must do the same for Betty Dukes and all workers facing discrimination by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act.
We need to make it clear to politicians in Washington, D.C., and state capitals and localities around the country that it’s their job to create a more equitable workplace that respects our current work force. We are watching.
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Beverly Cooper Neufeld, a nonprofit consultant, is president of the New York Women’s Agenda and director of its Equal Pay Coalition NYC. The two coalitions represent more than 100 organizations in New York City.