National Commentary

Congress Moran’s News Commentary: Celebrating 50 Years of the Equal Pay Act

This week marked the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act. When President John F. Kennedy signed this historic legislation into law, women were making 59 cents for every dollar that men earned doing the same work. At the time he signed the law, President Kennedy referred to the bill as a “first step” in closing the large wage gap.

While this historic legislation did narrow the gap, a half a century later it remains. Women on average only earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn – $11,836 less each year than men according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW). And the disparity grows when you look at minorities –African American women are paid 64 cents and Latinas are paid just 55 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.

This pay gap is not solely an issue of fairness; it has a large impact on the economic wellbeing of millions of Americans. Women are increasingly the breadwinners of their household, including more than 350,000 homes in Virginia. Lower salaries take money out of a woman’s pocket that could be used to put food on the table, pay rent, and save for education expenses. Further, a lower wage sets women up for decreased quality of life in later years by leading to lower Social Security benefits and reduced retirement security.

One recent piece of legislation that will help to expedite a more equal workplace is the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act – the very first law that President Obama signed upon entering office in 2009. This law guarantees that women and other workers can challenge unfair pay.

The legislation was inspired by Lilly Ledbetter, a manager at the Gadsden Alabama Goodyear Tire and Rubber Plant who worked the night shift for 19 years and discovered upon her retirement that she was paid up to $1,500 a month – nearly 20 percent – less than men working in the same job. Lilly took her fight all the way to the Supreme Court – and lost – because she hadn’t filed a complaint within 180 days of receiving her first discriminatory paycheck. Lilly had no way of knowing that she was being underpaid all those years. The law now states that a worker can file a complaint within 180 days of any discriminatory paycheck, so that someone facing the same situation Lilly faced would have recourse to justice.

Though the Equal Pay Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act have helped to narrow the wage gap and challenge unfair pay, the fact remains that women are still not earning a fair wage. To help fix this inequity, I have cosponsored the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would update the Equal Pay Act to provide more effective remedies to women who are not being paid equal wages for doing equal work.

Specifically, the Paycheck Fairness Act puts gender-based discrimination sanctions on equal footing with other forms of wage discrimination – such as race, disability or age – by allowing women to sue for compensatory and punitive damages. Though the Paycheck Fairness Act passed the House of Representatives in 2009, it was blocked by Republican leadership in the 112th Congress, and has not been considered in this session.

As we recognize the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, I will remain committed to ensuring women are adequately compensated for the enormous contributions they make to the workplace, starting with passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act.