Equal Pay Act Celebrates 50th Anniversary

This Tuesday marks Pay Equity Day for the calendar year 2012. It is the day women’s average pay for the year 2012 catches up with men’s average pay. What men, on average, have earned over 365 days has taken women, on average, 464 days.

The Equal Pay Act was signed into law June 10, 1963, by President John F. Kennedy. Basically, it “prohibits sex-based wage discrimination between men and women in the same establishment who perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort and responsibility under similar working conditions”. This Act came to the forefront in 1998 when Lilly Ledbetter filed an equal pay lawsuit against the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant in Alabama where she was employed. An anonymous fellow employee had alerted her to the fact she was being paid considerably less than her male counterparts performing the same basic job.

Ms. Ledbetter filed her discrimination complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in local courts and ultimately took it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. She lost her case on a technicality – she had not filed within the time frame specified in the law. Why did she not file? She did not know she was being paid less.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill signed into law by President Barack Obama on January 29, 2009. The Act eliminates the original 180 day time line for filing a pay discrimination lawsuit. Ms. Ledbetter has never received restitution from Goodyear. Since her wages earned during those working years were low, her retirement benefits are also low, lower than those received by her male counterparts. She states “I’ll be happy if the last thing they say about me after I am gone is that I made a difference”. A copy of her book, “Grace and Grit”, has been placed in the Prendergast Library by the Jamestown Branch AAUW.

Despite the laws on the books, women continue to lag behind on the economic front and it has become a priority for many women. According to the US Census Bureau, the disparity, roughly 20 percent overall, affects women of all ages, races, and educational levels. According to US Census data for New York State, women working fulltime averaged $42,113 per year, while their male counterparts averaged $50,388. The disparities are true for women executives and professionals as well, though at higher salary levels and even wider discrepencies. True, there are professions where salaries are equal regardless of gender, race or color, and ethnicity. However, many if not most of them remain white male dominated, especially at the higher salary levels.

Pay equity is a family issue. An increasing number of women are “head of household” and the sole breadwinner. Currently, one-third of working women are the ones who “bring home the bacon” for various reasons. The lower pay can only result in a lower standard of living for those families, with unfortunate consequences for society at large. For many other families, the woman’s income is necessary to maintain a certain standard of living according to today’s societal expectations. It has been estimated that working families lose $200 billion yearly due to the wage gap.

Pay equity is also an issue for the aging population. Women’s current life expectancy is almost 86 years, outliving men by an average of 3 years. Since their incomes during their working years were less than men’s, their retirement pensions and savings are less. The median income of older women is almost half that of older men.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his State of the State address, introduced the Women’s Equality Agenda. Included in the 10 point Agenda are items to achieve pay equity, stop sexual harassment, strengthen human traffiicking laws, end family status discrimination, and other items which negatively impact women. At the national level, a Paycheck Fairness Act is awaiting Congressional action. It will help close some of the loopholes in the 1963 Equal Pay Act. As Ms. Ledbetter has stated, “Giving women my Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act without the Paycheck Fairness Act is like giving them a nail without a hammer”.

As the Jamestown Branch AAUW takes note of Pay Equity Day, 5 downtown restuarants will also observe the day. Cibo, the Pub, Lisciandro’s Restuarant and the Babalu Cafe will offer a 20 percent discount for women on their menu prices during the lunch hour. Roberto’s will offer the 20 percent discount during the dinner hour. We invite everyone to join in the observance of this significant issue for the families of our community.

B. Dolores Thompson is the public policy chairwoman for the Jamestown Branch of the AAUW.