Woman Workers Campaign for Pay Equity, Fairness

WASHINGTON (PAI)–Saying the pay gap between male and female workers in the same jobs with the same skills and qualifications goes far beyond the quoted 77 cents a woman earns for every dollar for the identical man, a panel of female workers and business owners campaigned for strengthening federal pay fairness laws at an April 1 Senate committee hearing.

They got support from Labor Committee Democrats – and opposition from big business: The Chamber of Commerce deliberately sent a female lawyer employed by a notorious union-buster. The Senate should vote on the pay equity bill in mid-April.

The workers backed S84, the Paycheck Fairness Act, to put teeth into the 51-year-old federal Equal Pay Act.  S84 would ban retaliation against workers who ask about wages, allow class action suits for wage discrimination and let wronged workers sue for back pay and heavy damages.

It also would outlaw the common “any factor other than sex” defense that firms use to legally justify discrimination.

Organized labor strongly supports the Paycheck Fairness Act, which Senate Democrats have put on their agenda for this year.  They tried to push through in the last Congress.  Then, like other pro-worker legislation, it fell victim to a Senate Republican filibuster.  But even the Senate passes it this year, the GOP House leaders have deep-sixed pay equity bills so far, and intend to keep doing so.

Witnesses told senators the pay gap starts with a woman’s very first job, even if she’s a college graduate with better qualifications than her male counterparts.  It hurts workers, their families, their retirement security and the economy as well, they said.

“As a small business owner and manager, I support the Paycheck Fairness Act,” said ReShonda Young, operations manager for one family-owned business and owner of another – a startup specialty popcorn shop – in Waterloo, Iowa.

“It’s in line with my values as a business owner,” she said.  “I’m committed to pay equity for my employees so I have nothing to fear from the Paycheck Fairness Act.  If other businesses are truly committed to pay equity, they’ll have nothing to fear, either.

“I support it because it will be good for our local economy.  Ensuring pay equity for women workers will put more money in their pockets to spend in local businesses…This will help businesses like mine and boost local economies.

“And I support it because it levels the playing field, supporting responsible businesses that treat our employees fairly.  Small business owners don’t like being forced into a race to the bottom by big box stores and chain operations that threaten to undercut us by under-paying women workers.”

Kerri Sleeman of Hancock, Mich., a former worker in a firm dependent on the auto industry, found out about pay discrimination after her employer went broke in 2003.  Workers had to file bankruptcy court claims to get their last two weeks’ wages.  That’s when Hancock found each man she supervised made more than she did.

She didn’t know that before, Hancock said, because when the firm first hired her, after she got her advanced decree in mechanical engineering, its top brass did not discuss salaries – for her or anyone else.   They just set the pay arbitrarily, she pointed out.  S84, Hancock said, would bar firms from harming workers who ask about pay.

Hancock’s former supervisor, who had praised her work, then told her she was paid less because the men she worked with needed more money to support their families – an old saw that expert witnesses told the panel does not fit today’s economy or today’s women in the workforce.

“The fathers were seen as more deserving of higher pay, even though I supervised them” and sometimes took over work they did not finish, Hancock testified.  “My work was devalued because I was not a male breadwinner.  I was considered less worthy because I was a woman…You can’t stand up for yourself if you’re not privy to the rules and you can’t negotiate your way around such pay discrimination.”

University of Maryland law professor Deborah Eisenberg, who has handled equal pay cases, said the key change S84 makes would be to deprive firms of the “any factor other than sex” defense they erect against equal pay claims.

She called that reason “a gaping loophole which swallowed the ‘equal pay for equal work’ rule.”  S84 would replace it “with the common sense fairness notion that a wage disparity between two employees who perform the same jobs should be based on a bona fide factor related to the job or business.

“The idea that differences in pay should relate to the job and business is not only a matter of basic fairness; it is simply smart business.  The act (S84) leaves it to the employer’s sole discretion which factors should be used to determine pay,” she added.

The union-buster, lawyer Camille Olson of Seyfarth Shaw, speaking for the Chamber of Commerce, denounced the 77-cents-per-dollar figure as an “unsupported assertion” of “employer discrimination.” She claimed “existing laws already provide robust protections and significant remedies to protect employees against gender-based pay discrimination.”