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Paycheck Fairness Act on the Horizon

October 21, 2010

With unemployment hovering at 10% and family incomes strained, issues of jobs and pay are increasingly in the news.  One feature economists have highlighted with regard to the current economic downturn is the disproportionate degree to which layoffs have affected men – some have dubbed it a “mancession.”  As a result, for the first time in history, women are coming close to making up the majority of the American workforce.

As job losses transform two income households into single income households, more women have taken the role of sole breadwinner.  Consequently, questions of pay equity are increasingly a matter of everyday focus for families – and, in an election year, a matter of importance for federal agencies and politicians.

Federal legislation to address the pay gap between men and women has not significantly changed since the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and the pay gap itself – women earn on average 77 cents for every dollar earned by men – has persisted.  Thus the Paycheck Fairness Act, currently sponsored in the House by Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, seeks to build on the 1963 law.  It would have the Department of Labor collect wage-related data within defined geographic areas to compare pay differentials between men and women.  When those differentials are shown to exist in a workplace, it would require employers to demonstrate that they are due to factors other than sex, and protect workers from punishment for inquiring about pay practices.

The Paycheck Fairness Act was introduced in 2008, where it passed in the House but stalled in the Senate.  But new momentum for gender equity legislation came to Congress with the passage of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.  The Lily Ledbetter Act amended the Civil Rights Act to protect plaintiffs filing an equal pay lawsuit from dismissal due to a statute of limitations and was signed into law by President Obama in 2009.  The Senate is reportedly considering bringing the Paycheck Fairness Act to a vote following the midterm elections in November.  Should PFA join Lily Ledbetter in becoming law, it could signal a renewed focus on gender discrimination within the Labor Department and civil rights enforcement agencies.

Michael Paarlberg

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