Fair Pay Laws Create Controversy at State and Federal Level
Election year provides a hot source of contention on a number of political issues. This year’s debate highlights have centered a lot on women, notably policies addressing the gender wage gap. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2008, women make 77 cents on the male dollar as a national average. Many groups attribute the disparity to systematic discrimination against women in the workplace, prompting some state and federal legislators in recent years to take action providing easier access to battle discrimination in court. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, changing the statute of limitations for filing a discrimination lawsuit and opening the door for a number of states to follow suit.
Recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) signed WI SB 202 into act, repealing provisions within the state’s Equal Pay Enforcement Act of 2009. The act was designed to work as a deterrent against pay discrimination based on race and gender and to enable victims to plead their cases in a less costly state circuit court. Walker’s press secretary stated the repeal of provisions within the act “removed a duplicative and unnecessarily costly process related to seeking punitive and compensatory damages in state court,” noting that wage discrimination is still, of course, against the law. Opponents of the repeal claim this move shifts the cost of the legal battle to the financially disadvantaged, removing another legal avenue with which to pursue equality and perpetuating a higher than national average wage disparity in Wisconsin.
State senator Grothman (R), sponsor of the Wisconsin repeal, has asserted sex-based wage discrimination does not account for pay disparity, a sentiment echoed by some in the national media and by other state and federal legislators. Grothman and GOP strategists claim the earning disparity between men are women can be attributed to a number of factors including child-rearing, average number of hours worked, and the choice to pursue a career in nonprofit and other lower paying job sectors. Those in opposition to legislation designed to deter discrimination believe disparity is not due to discrimination based on sex and more a matter of career and personal choice, arguing additional legislative measures and punitive damages are unnecessary and potentially too costly to business when federal and state protections currently exist.
Politicians who support addressing gender-based pay discrimination recognize that there are many variables contributing to pay differences, but see discrimination as a real problem in the United States. Research has shown that a pay gap exists between men and women one year following college graduation, even after all other variables have been removed, supporting the position that disparity is unrelated to a matter of personal choice. A recent U.S Department of Labor study also found that one-third (11 cents) of the pay gap is attributable to sex discrimination, despite decades after the passage of Equal Pay Act of 1963. Additionally, two-thirds of women are either primary or co-breadwinners in the U.S., earning $400,000 to $2 million less than men in their lifetime, resulting in a significant economic loss for American households.
Regardless of one’s position on discrimination, wage disparity is a significant economic problem. With increasing costs of healthcare, education, and unemployment rates, most women no longer have the option to stay at home to raise a family. Women are also more likely to function as a primary provider, given the increasing number of single parent households and higher unemployment rates. Because of the impact wage disparity has on households, Democrats look to address the issue at the state and federal level with legislation including the Paycheck Fairness Act, currently up for debate in the House. The GOP is working against additional legislation and even repealing some legal avenues to pursue equality, as is the case in Wisconsin. It has been suggested by a number of Republicans that the focus needs to be more on job creation and less on discrimination. Despite the opposing views on how to address wage inequality, both sides seem to agree something needs to change.
So what are the solutions? Should elected officials work to protect the interest of the individual or business and government? What role should the government play in addressing wage disparity and are additional laws necessary to challenge discrimination? How would job creation change gender wage disparity, particularly if the careers women choose are sometimes motivated by factors like child-rearing?
For more information on current legislation -
New York (NY S01680, S07057) – Prohibits unfair compensation on the basis of sex when work is of comparable value.
Michigan (SB 0340) – Amends Elliot-Larson Civil Rights Act, adding a provision requiring equal compensation for equal work.
Virginia (HB 1175) – Prohibits employment discrimination.
Tennessee (HJR0635) – Creates a state committee addressing wage discrimination.
Mississippi (HB 289) – Fair pay act requiring equivalent pay for comparable jobs. Died in committee on 3/6/2012.
Wisconsin (A 219) – Repealed provisions within Equal Pay Enforcement Act allowing discrimination cases to be tried in circuit court.
Oklahoma (SB 1728) – Removes Human Rights Committee, putting discrimination cases into hands of Attorney General.
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