Public Comment

Does The Equal Pay Act Actually Equalize?

Harry Brill
Saturday June 16, 2018 - 09:47:00 AM

Recently, several progressive and feminist organizations celebrated the 55th year of the Equal Pay Act, which mandates that women receive the same pay and amenities as men for engaging in jobs that have similar levels of skills and responsibilities. The law is broadly defined to cover jobs with different specific skills. The main purpose of the law is to assure that employers do not economically discriminate against women by paying less than what men earn for performing similar work.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against various minority groups, including women. If EEOC concurs with an employee's complaint, it can first attempt to settle the charge. It that doesn't succeed, EEOC can then file a law suit on behalf of the person who complained. If EEOC prevails, but the employer violates the law again, the agency can recommend that the employer be sentenced up to six months in prison. It is refreshing to find a law that at least on paper views white collar wrongdoing as a criminal offense. 

When the law was signed in 1963 by President Kennedy women were earning about 58 cents for every dollar earned by men. Currently, per dollar, white women earn 79 cents, African Americans, 63 cents, Hispanics and Native Americans, 54 cents. Much of the decline in the gender gap for white women was due, unfortunately, to the stagnation of male wages. Still, the median earnings of women who work full time is over $10,000 less than male income. It is no surprise that the poverty rate of women and their families is substantially higher than for men. In fact, women in America are 35 percent more likely than men to be poor. 

If the pace of improvement during the last 30 years continues, which is unlikely, white women will not achieve parity with men until 2051, which is 40 years from now. African Americans women won't achieve parity until 2124, which is in 108 years. Both Hispanic women and Native Americans women will not receive equal pay with men for over 200 years.  

The usual explanation for the relatively higher income that white men earn is that they are formally better educated. That truism, however, does not apply to gender differences. According to data from the Department of Education, beginning in 1982 more women have been earning bachelor degrees then men. In a recent year, women earned 61.6 percent of all associate degrees, 56.7 percent of all bachelor's degrees, 59.9 percent of all master's degrees, and 51.6 percent of all doctorate degrees.  

Generally speaking, for every 100 men obtaining a college degree at some level , 140 women are doing the same. If women's educational achievement actually accounted for the relative difference in income, they would be earning substantially more than men. 

What then is the Equal Pay Act accomplishing? Actually very little. The law is mainly a broken promise. Among the thousands of cases in which employees register a complaint, only about 10 percent receive monetary benefits including back pay. If after a settlement the employer continues to violate the Equal Pay Act, the EEOC makes no attempt to press for criminal charges. But the violations by many employers who are engaging in wage theft is a criminal act that should be prosecuted.  

Moreover, with few exceptions EEOC is representing particular individuals in a workplace but not all the employees who are similarly affected. EEOC makes no effort to impact the workplace generally. Attempting to assure that all women employees in any particular establishment are protected by the provisions of the Equal Pay Act is extremely rare. Such a comprehensive approach makes up no more than one percent of the cases. EEOC's problem, then, is not only that its impact is minimal. The absence of aggressive enforcement sends a signal to employers that it can continue to conduct business as usual. 

Of course, who a president chooses for EEOC's executive committee is very important. Trump just appointed the acting Chair. The Chair, Victoria A. Lipnic , can be counted on serving Trump's pro-business perspective. Undoubtedly, the other appointments that Trump makes will also be pro-business at the expense of working people. Clearly, then, the chances of improving EEOC's mandate to serve the legitimate interests of employees is very, very unlikely.