WARREN, NH — Women in full-time year-round jobs earned 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Yet, at a town hall earlier this week, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) claimed that Congress has done enough to ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work. Indeed, she justified her vote against legislation intended to prevent employers from dodging federal equal pay law with an excuse similar to the National Rifle Association’s explanation for why we do not need any more gun laws — we just need to enforce the ones we have:
QUESTION: My grandmother, who was an extremely intelligent woman, trained many, many men who then became her boss, and so on and so forth. [She] never received a pension, never, um, was really paid what she was worth. And I was disappointed that you voted against the Equal Pay Act, but maybe there was something in the bill that you thought would be detrimental to the economy or whatever. But I was curious if you could explain your philosophy about equal pay and how, maybe, you could suggest something that we could all agree upon so that women would stop making 75 cents for every dollar a man makes . . . .
AYOTTE: We have existing laws — Title VII, um, Lilly Ledbetter, all those existing protections in place — that, I believe, enforce and provide that people doing equal jobs are, certainly in this country, should receive equal pay. So, uh, that bill, in my view, didn’t add — in fact I think it created a lot of additional burdens that would have been hard, um, to make it more difficult for job creators to create jobs. . . . The reason that I voted against that specific bill is that, I looked at it, and there were already existing laws that need to be enforced and can be enforced and I didn’t feel like adding that layer was going to help us better get at the equal pay issue.
It should go without saying that, if similarly situated women are not making the same amount as their male colleagues, then we aren’t doing enough to close this pay gap. So Ayotte’s suggestion that our current laws are sufficient cannot be squared with the reality facing women in the workplace. The backbone of modern workplace discrimination law was formed by the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it is indeed true that the pay gap narrowed significantly in the quarter-century after these workplace protections became law. According to data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, however, progress on the pay gap stalled in the 1990s, and has been only slightly more than flat ever since:
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which Ayotte refers to in her remarks, overruled an erroneous Supreme Court decision that reduced existing protections for women. It did not expand workers’ rights beyond what they already enjoyed prior to the Supreme Court’s decision to roll back civil rights law.
The bill that Ayotte opposed was the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would hardly “make it more difficult for job creators to create jobs,” as Ayotte suggests. Currently, employers can escape liability under the Equal Pay Act even if they engaged in completely irrational discrimination that impacts a female worker. The Paycheck Fairness Act would change this to ensure that employer’s pay decisions are rooted in legitimate business reasons to pay one employee more than another — reasons like “education, training, or experience” — and not something completely arbitrary. It also provides a few additional protections to women, such as forbidding employers from retaliating against employees who try to discover how their pay compares to that of their colleagues.
So when Ayotte voted against this bill, she stood up for employer’s rights to make completely irrational judgments about how much a female worker should be paid, and their right to retaliate against employees who are trying to figure out if they are being treated fairly.