Meister: Obama's promise to women

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It's time to enact the Paycheck Fairness Act that would allow women to negotiate with employers for equal pay with men

By Dick Meister

(Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century.)

One of the most important promises made by President Obama in his State of the Union address has been largely overlooked – his promise to “crack down on violations of equal pay laws, so that women get equal pay for an equal day’s work.”

The need for that is great. Despite the 47-year-old law that promises women equal pay, their earnings remain well below men’s pay. They average only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, even though their work is obviously every bit as valuable to employers and society at large as the work of men.

The pay discrepancy is even greater for women of color. African American women earn 63 cents and Latinas 52 cents for every dollar earned by men.

It’s estimated that if women were granted equal pay, they could earn as much as $2 million more over the whole of their working lives. It’s also estimated that if women were paid equally, the number of families living in poverty could be reduced by as much as half. Women’s earnings are needed by most families, and in many cases, women are their family’s only breadwinner.

Even women doing the same work as men, or work that’s as valuable to employers as that of their male counterparts, almost always are paid less. It’s as bad for women in the professions as for others. Female nurses, for instance, physicians and surgeons, professors, school teachers and lawyers earn as much as 30 percent less than men in their fields.

President Obama already has signed a bill that should help narrow the male-female pay gap. It was, in fact, the very first bill he signed after taking office – the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. It’s named for a retired tire plant supervisor in Alabama who discovered after nearly 20 years on the job that she was being paid less than male supervisors.

Ms. Ledbetter sued for discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the law requires workers to sue no later than 180 days after their discriminatory pay rate was set – even if, like Ms. Ledbetter, they don’t discover the pay discrimination until years later. As the result of the decision, hundreds of pay discrimination cases were thrown out of court.

Shortly after the Supreme Court acted, the House passed a bill that would have overturned the court’s outrageous decision. But Senate Republicans, claiming the bill would lead to a flood of unfounded suits against employers, blocked a vote, and President Bush vowed to veto the bill if it ever crossed his desk.

The bill that finally reached Obama’s desk for signing provides that the 180-day time limit for filing lawsuits under the Civil Rights Act doesn’t begin to run until the last discriminatory act by an employer.

What’s most needed now is enactment of the Paycheck Fairness Act that’s been pending for a dozen years. The bill made it through the House last year, but was blocked by Senate Republicans. Obama, who voted for the bill as a senator, is certain to sign the new bill – if it’s not kept from him by a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

The Fairness Act would close loopholes in the 1963 Equal Pay Act that have made it relatively easy for employers to pay women less than their male co-workers holding the same jobs. The law would empower women to negotiate with employers for equal pay; prohibit retaliation against workers who share salary information with co-workers; strengthen government outreach, education and enforcement, and generally make the law much stronger.

There ‘s no doubting President Obama’s firm support for the act. As he’s said, “We won ‘t truly have an economy that puts the needs of the middle class first until we ensure that when it comes to pay and benefits at work, women are treated like the equal partners they are.”

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com