In the 21st century, the idea men and women should get equal pay for equal work hardly seems controversial, let alone radical. In fact, it has been the law for more than 50 years.
Nonetheless, on Wednesday, Senate Republicans unanimously rejected a bill that would have made it somewhat easier for women to assert what has been their legal right since 1963. With that, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which had 52 sponsors, failed to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster and died.
It was an odd move for an election year and an even stranger step for a party trying to counter Democrats’ accusations that Republicans have been waging a “war on women.”
President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, which made it illegal for employers to pay men less than women for the same work. But while it established equal pay for equal work as a principle, it also left large gaps in its real-world application.
Some of that was remedied with the 2009 passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Ledbetter labored for years while being paid less than male workers doing the same work. When she learned of the discrimination she had endured, she took the case to court, only to be told she had waited too long. With the Fair Pay Act, Congress changed the law to prevent a recurrence of the injustice Ledbetter suffered.
But it was the bill rejected Wednesday that would have rectified the underlying cause of Ledbetter’s distress by making it illegal for companies to retaliate against workers who share information about their pay. After all, how can workers know if they are being unfairly paid if they are not allowed to discuss their wages?
The Paycheck Fairness Act would also have brought questions of discriminatory pay into line with the law on cases involving discrimination based on race or ethnicity by allowing compensatory and punitive damages as well as facilitating class-action claims. And it would have required an employer’s defense that a pay differential was not sex-related be tied to “bona fide factors, such as eduction, training or experience.”
None of this is extreme, unprecedented or intrusive. Nor would the Paycheck Fairness Act have been, as one critic put it, the “full-employment act for trial lawyers.” The courts are not now clogged with cases alleging racial discrimination, and corporate America is not shying away from hiring people of color for fear of litigation. The bogeymen conjured by critics do not exist.
Republicans were on firmer ground when they challenged White House numbers on comparative wages. The Obama administration says women earn 77 cents to the dollar paid to men. But that is a census figure of questionable value. It reflects, for example, the lifetime earnings of a female professional as well as the nominally zero income of a stay-at-home mom.
The Pew Research Center says the figure for most women is more like 84 cents for every male dollar. For young women it puts the number at 93 cents. And, as critics were quick to note, the number for women working at the White House is only 88 cents.
But all that misses the point: Women sometimes opt out of the workforce to have and raise children, a decision that is theirs to make. What is not acceptable is for someone else to decide one worker should be paid less for the same work simply because of her sex.
Why any politician would want to go on record as opposing such simple fairness is hard to fathom.