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Solis, Ledbetter Urge Passage of Paycheck Fairness Act

By Kathy Gurchiek  9/22/2010
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In a live webcast Sept. 21, 2010, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis and Lilly Ledbetter advocated for the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act now before the Senate after being stalled in a Senate subcommittee since January 2009.

The webcast appeared as debate on the legislation heats up and November 2010 elections approach.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, which has already passed the House, would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to give employees new ways to seek damages for gender-based wage discrimination. It would give employees the right to inquire about and discuss their pay with co-workers and supervisors without punitive action from the employer by making damages available. It also would authorize class action suits under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedures and mandate training and other outreach efforts on wage discrimination issues, HR News reported Sept. 21, 2010.

Women earn 80 cents for every $1 a man earns and Hispanic women earn 59 cents for every $1, according to Solis. However, inequitable pay is not just a woman’s issue, she said, noting that many women are the breadwinners of their family, and their inequitable pay puts their families at risk by affecting their housing, health care and quality of education.

Ledbetter, for example, told of hearing from a young, single man who is helping support his sister and her child because his sister doesn’t earn enough money.

Ledbetter is a former Goodyear employee whose 10-year fight for equitable pay eventually came before the U.S. Supreme Court and led to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law on Jan. 29, 2009.

Ledbetter had worked for Goodyear for two decades only to learn a few years short of retirement that her base pay was less than men doing the same job. That inequity cost her more than $200,000 and affected her Social Security and 401(k) earnings. When her husband died, Ledbetter said her income dropped 50 percent, compounding her financial straits.

Pay inequity is not limited to service-sector jobs that primarily are held by women, according to Ledbetter, who told of hearing from women with advanced degrees working at colleges and universities who are paid less than their male counterparts.

“It’s time we make some changes,” she said, pointing out that it’s been nearly 50 years since the FLSA was passed. “We have to get our children and our families back on track to be competitive with the rest of the world. It all starts with women being treated fairly and equitably.”

Some business groups oppose the Paycheck Fairness Act. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, has testified against it. It maintains the bill would, among other things, “thrust federal agencies and the courts into the business of setting compensation and judging which jobs are of equal value to society” and “significantly reduce employer defenses under the Equal Pay Act and make unlimited punitive and compensatory damages available for violations, even if they are unintentional.”

The Society for Human Resource Management notes on its web site that it opposes the legislation as written, claiming the act would:

  • Make employers liable for unlimited punitive damages under the FLSA for even unintentional pay disparities, and eliminate current limits for back pay as well as for punitive and compensatory damages on employers.

  • Facilitate class action lawsuits against employers by repealing the requirement that employees must give their written consent to become a party in an Equal Pay Act class action. 

  • Restrict an employer’s flexibility to compensate its employees based on current law criteria, such as cost-of-living differences among geographic locations, different work responsibilities within similar job categories or prior salary history.

During the webcast, Solis urged the predominately female-dominated audience to get behind the proposed legislation and contact their lawmakers.

“All of us have a role to play,” she said. “Part of it is sensitizing people in the workforce and making clear that they understand that this is about enacting laws that protect both sexes. We have a lot of education to do.”

Related Articles:

Ledbetter Act Adds Lengthy To-Do List for HR, SHRM Legal Issues, March 10, 2009

Five Reasons to Focus on Pay Equity in 2010, SHRM HR Disciplines, Compensation, March 8, 2010

Benched Paycheck Fairness Act Might Come Back into Play, SHRM Legal Issues, Sept. 4, 2009

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