November 17, 2010

PAYCHECK FAIRNESS ACT

Mr. President, I rise today in support of the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Progress for women in this country has not come easily or come quickly.  There was a time when women were not allowed to vote or own property.  In fact, our country once considered women to be the property of their fathers or husbands.   

Over the years, women have fought gender barriers and broken down stereotypes, making great strides toward equity.  Unfortunately, inequities still exist.     While women have successfully broken through glass ceilings on careers across the employment spectrum, pay discrimination still remains.  

Today, women make up half of the total workforce and nearly 4 in 10 mothers are the primary breadwinners of their household. Nearly two-thirds of mothers bring home at least a quarter of the household earnings. In these hard economic times, when women's wages put food on the table, keep the lights on and put  gas in the car, pay inequities should not be tolerated.  

In 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act in an effort to end pay discrimination.  Despite the good faith effort of this legislation, legal loopholes exist that have weakened the intent and goal of the law.  The Paycheck Fairness Act updates and strengthens the core principles in the Equal Pay Act.  It will close loopholes in the original legislation; level the playing field for employers, so the employers paying fair wages are not disadvantaged; and will shine a light on pay discrimination occurring throughout our country.   

According to the Census Bureau, although women between the ages of 25 and 29 possess a higher percentage of bachelor degrees than men in the same age group, women consistently earn less than men at every level of education attainment.  In 2009, women working full time, year around were paid 77 cents for every dollar paid to men on average.  This gap is worse for minorities.  African-American women were paid 62 cents and Latino women are paid only 53 cents for every dollar a man makes.  

In fact, women earn less on the dollar than men as their level of education increases.   A study completed by the American Association of University Women found that female graduates working full time earn only 80% as much as their male graduates.  The study then looked ten years after graduation to find women fall further behind, earning only 69% as much as men.   Overall women are paid less than their male counterparts during their entire career.  

Opponents of this legislation argue that there is no real gender pay gap and if there is one - it's due to women's choices.   Specifically, opponents assert that women earn less because they are more likely to choose part-time work to accommodate a growing family.  This is incorrect.  Many studies demonstrate that the wage gap is real.  According to a recent GAO study, so-called life choices do not explain the persistent wage gap.  Additionally, GAO found that even when all relevant career and family attributes are taken into account, there is still a significant unexplained gap in men's and women's earnings. 

Additionally, opponents of the legislation assert that the Paycheck Fairness Act will create increased litigation.  This, too, is just wrong.  The Equal Pay Act is not a strict liability statute and it sets a very high burden for an employee to bring a claim. That burden will not change with the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act.   The legislation will now require that the "factor other than sex" defense available to employers is a bona fide, job related factor that must be articulated.   This language mirrors other civil rights legislation prohibiting discrimination. 

Finally, opponents assert that this legislation will hurt businesses and reduce job growth during these hard economic times.   This is yet another incorrect assertion.   In fact, this legislation will help ensure that women are paid fairly for equivalent work.  In a nationwide survey of registered voters, 84% of voters said they supported "a new law that would provide women with more tools to get fair pay in the workplace."   There is an overwhelming level of support for fair pay across the political spectrum. 

The goal of the Paycheck Fairness Act is simple: close the loopholes that exist in current law to ensure that men and women are paid fairly and accurately in the workplace.  No longer will an employer be able to pay women and men different wages if they are doing the same or equivalent jobs.  No longer will an employer be allowed to retaliate against employees for discussing their wages with other employees. No longer will we allow pay discrimination to be tolerated. 

As an original co-sponsor of this bill, I urge my colleagues to support this bill and join our colleagues in the House by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act.