Fair Pay Is ‘Not A Gift’: The Senate Should Consider The Paycheck Fairness Act

Our guest blogger is Heather Boushey, Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Fair pay is an issue that “touches every family across this nation- each one of us,” said Lilly Ledbetter in a recent conversation with Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. She went on to say that equal pay is “not a gift,” it’s something we are “rightfully entitled to.” But, we have to work for that right.

Lilly was speaking the truth. For millions of American families — in fact, two thirds of families with children — mothers are breadwinners. If they aren’t paid fairly, not only they, but their whole family suffers.

Fair pay is also not just an issue about today’s paycheck, it’s a family’s economic well-being over a lifetime. When a colleague left Lilly Ledbetter an anonymous note that listed her salary and the higher salaries of three of her male colleagues, she told us how her first reaction was “letting it go.” But, then she thought about how she would be short-changing herself for the rest of her life.

Of course, Lilly Ledbetter’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court. She won, but the Court told her that she could not claim her nearly two decades of back pay because the statue of limitations had run out. Basically, she’d been discriminated against for too long.

Congress has fixed this with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, but there is more to be done. Women who face inequity have to confront their employers. To do that, they need to know the score—they need to know if there is indeed lower than the man they stand next to on the assembly line or who sits in the cubicle next door. Markets only work when all the participants have full information.

The Paycheck Fairness Act prohibits employer from retaliating against employees who share salary information. This provision alone will not completely solve the gender pay gap, but it will allow employees to access the information they need to understand if their pay is at the market rate. Combined with the provision to give employees an opportunity to improve their salary negotiation skills, this could be a powerful step towards greater pay equity, especially among men and women in similar jobs within a single firm.

The Paycheck Fairness Act will also increase training, research, and education to help the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission identify and respond to wage discrimination claims and improve our data collection of pay information. Discrimination is something that’s hard to prove at the individual level, but often easy to see in the aggregate data. If a firm employs a thousand men and a thousand women, but men are systemically promoted or are paid more in similar jobs, then this indicate a gender disparity that should be investigated.

Without access to that kind of data, the EEOC has no idea whether there are signs that unfair pay practices are occurring. The data provisions of the Paycheck Fairness Act are critical in enforcing the law already on the books.

This is probably the most important time for families to ensure equal pay for all workers, men and women, including caregivers. Women are increasingly breadwinners and ensuring they are paid fairly is good for them and our economy. With the Great Recession leading to many more lay offs among men than women, millions of women today are supporting their families through these tough economic times.

When Lilly found that note in her inbox, she didn’t know that she was about to become one of the nation’s most important activists for equal pay. I was glad she’s joined us in this fight for equal pay. Let’s convince the Senate to do the right thing and join her.