Lenora M. Lapidus and Vania Leveille: Working Women, Your Paycheck Has Been Trapped in a Time Warp

April 4, 2017 – Lenora M. Lapidus is Director, Women’s Rights Project, ACLU; Vania Leveille is Senior Legislative Counsel

Although spring is in the air and we are well into 2017, if you’re a woman, your paycheck is stuck in time, specifically at December 31, 2016. That’s because women — on average — earn just 80 percent of what men make, meaning that they must work until today, April 4, 2017, to earn what men earned by December 31, 2016.

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Welcome to Equal Pay Day 2017: The “holiday” we would prefer not to celebrate.

But wait, there’s more bad news. The “Equal Pay Day” for women of color is even worse: African-American women’s wages won’t catch up to men’s 2016 earnings until July 31, Native American women until September 25, and Latina women until November 2.

Pay discrimination on the basis of sex has been illegal since the Equal Pay Act was enacted in 1963 — a prohibition that became broader under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet the gap between men’s and women’s earnings remains. Multiple factors contribute to the gender wage gap. They include:

  • Lower wages: Some employers still pay women less for the same job — in violation of the Equal Pay Act and Title VII.
  • Lack of transparency: Surveys show as many as half of employers have policies that punish their employees who discuss their salaries, a lack of transparency that prevents women from even knowing when they are paid less than their male counterparts.
  • Salary history: Women may be hired at lower starting salaries than their male peers because an employer bases those decisions on the pay earned at the applicant’s last job, perpetuating prior inequalities.
  • Occupational segregation: “Women’s jobs” — such as retail, administrative work, child care, and teaching — are undervalued and paid less than traditional “men’s jobs,” such as law enforcement, manufacturing, and the skilled trades.
  • Pregnancy discrimination: Women who become pregnant face economic penalties — from outright job loss to being forced onto unpaid leave because their jobs are physically strenuous and they are denied simple job modifications that would enable them to continue working.
  • Lack of paid family leave: Women with family care obligations — for a new child or an elderly parent — lose income during periods of unpaid family care leave. Sometimes they even lose their jobs because their employers don’t provide any leave time at all.

To close the gender wage gap, policy makers and employers must address each of these factors.

The ACLU is working at both the federal and state level to pass legislation to do precisely that. Today members of Congress are reintroducing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which updates the Equal Pay Act, prohibits employers from penalizing employees who discuss their salaries, and bars employers from asking about prior salary. The FAMILY Act, legislation providing for paid family leave, has already been introduced, and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, requiring employers to accommodate pregnant workers, will be introduced in the coming months.

Advocates in the states are equally active on women’s economic equality initiatives including equal pay, paid family leave, and pregnancy and breastfeeding accommodations. In the past two years, lawmakers in more than half the states have introduced equal pay bills that promote pay transparency, close loopholes in employers’ defenses, broaden the criteria under which a woman’s job will be considered comparable to a man’s when assessing equal pay violations, and bar the use of prior salary to set current pay. In addition, in the past few years, 18 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws granting pregnant employees the right to accommodations at work. The majority of these have passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support.

The ACLU, along with our coalition partners at the federal and state levels, including members of the Equal Pay Today! Campaign, are fighting hard in support of these bills. And of course, we will continue using existing anti-discrimination laws to fight pay inequity in all its forms in the courts. Through such litigation, and by mobilizing people power in support of these measures, we can work toward the day when we wipe Equal Pay Day right off the calendar — and into the pages of the history books, where it belongs.