June 9, 2023

Equal Pay Act turns 60

Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.

A law requiring employers to pay women the same as men for the same job turns 60 on Saturday—but women still lag behind white men in pay. 

According to the American Center for Progress, working women have lost $61 trillion in wages since 1967 when the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking the data.

White women earn 79 cents for every dollar a  white man earns, but the wage gap is higher for women of color. Native women make 57 cents for every dollar paid to a white, non-Hispanic man, according to the National Women’s Law Center. A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that women make up more than 40 percent of the workforce overall and earn about 82 cents for every dollar earned by a man overall. Black women earn 63 cents while Hispanic women 58 cents.

Deborah Vagins, ERA’s national campaign director of Equal Rights Advocates, said that when the Equal Pay Act passed in 1963, the wage gap was wider.

She said that President John F. Kennedy, when he signed the legislation, called it “a first step.”

“It was one of the first major pieces of legislation for equal pay for equal work,” she said.

But, today, employers can find loopholes in the law. She said some of the language in the bill was written broadly and it has led to some employers to pay men a higher wage for the same job but claim the higher pay is for a reason other than gender.

Vagins said advocates are trying to push for federal legislation called the Paycheck Fairness Act, that would close that loophole and modernize and strengthen the Equal Pay Act.

One of the things the Paycheck Fairness Act would do is ban salary history as a way to set a salary for a new employee. That method of establishing salary for a new worker impacts women and carries wage discrimination from job to job.

“If wages are discriminatorily low and a future employer uses those wages to set a new pay, even a well-intended employer can be carrying forward wage discrimination,” she said.

Vagins said that when the Equal Pay Act became law 60 years ago, it changed the culture and made employers look at wages differently. It also allowed lawsuits for wage discrimination to proceed but Vagins said salary secrecy can hamper an employee’s ability to know if she is being discriminated against by her employer.

Other things can come into play with discriminatory salaries, Vagins said.

Women still suffer from occupational segregation, particularly women of color. Employers may also overlook women for promotions or there could be inequities in pay raises. Women can also suffer the “motherhood penalty,” Vagins said.

“Employers assume women are not as committed to work because of childcare responsibilities, while men get a fatherhood ‘bonus,’” she said.

Vagins said men’s wages tend to increase when they become fathers.

Other things that can impact women and their wages are pregnancy discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace, which could lead a woman to leave her job quickly or drop out of the workforce altogether and lose wages, Vagins said.

Race and gender are not the only issues contributing to a wage gap, Vagins said. The LGBTQ community also suffers a wage gap. But she said, there is a lack of data about it.

She said some nonprofit data exists that has shown a pay gap for LGBTQ individuals but the federal government does not collect that data. Vagins said the ERA will be issuing a call to action for legislation that would create inclusion for LGBTQ individuals in pay gap data and that “would help solve some of this problem.”

Vagins said the LGBTQ wage gap is caused by many of the same issues as the gender wage gap, including occupational segregation.

She said the fact that up until recently a person could still be fired for identifying as LGBTQ creates “economic stability.” The U.S. Supreme Court determined that the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits an employer from firing an LGBTQ individual for who they are as recently as 2020. 

“If an employer can terminate you because of who you love, it contributes to the wage gap,” Vagins said.

She said that could be “potentially a huge driver” but because there is a lack of data, exactly what drives the LGBTQ wage gap is not as clear.

“The most vulnerable workers, marginalized communities, suffer wage gaps and discrimination,” she said.

Two years before the Equal Pay Act became law, Kennedy created the Commission on the Status of Women. Kennedy tasked the commission to make recommendations on the status of women and their economic status. She said Kennedy wanted the commission to consider what issues were preventing women from full participation in American democracy.

“It was through those efforts and many advocates who were working tirelessly to get the civil right passed,” she said.