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Basic equity in the workplace

The loudest and most prolonged applause came when the luncheon speaker announced that the U. S. House of Representatives was determined to place Pay Equity legislation as its next order of business. The speaker that afternoon actually was The Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.

Her remarks were given at a recent Montana event hosted by the eight-state public policy group, Western Progress. Good to her public word, Speaker Pelosi brought the bill to the full House a few days later, where it was passed by the comfortable bipartisan margin of 247 to 178.    

Incredibly - and despite the passage of the original Equal Pay Act 45 years ago during John Kennedy’s presidency - a persistent and significant pay gap between men and women has continued to exist. Through that almost half century the gap for women has been reduced somewhat, going from 59 cents in 1962 to today’s 77 cents for every dollar made by men. Studies continually indicate the pay gap costs women between $400,000 to $2 million during their wage earning lifetimes. Reverse that gender disparity and think about whether we men would have patiently abided such economic unfairness for half a century.

This new legislation, “The Paycheck Fairness Act,” is now before the Senate. Its purpose is identical to the House passed version which is to simply assure enforcement. Pay discrimination is already a federal crime; it is enforcement that is lacking. This legislation improves enforcement through closing loopholes, prohibiting employer retaliation, increasing penalties when pay discrimination is proven, and both requires and funds the Department of Labor to improve its enforcement record.

Not one state in the Rocky Mountain West is even close to reaching pay equality between men and women doing equivalent work or even identical jobs. During the past year the unemployment rate for women increased by 20 percent, much higher than that for men. Older women suffer even more, with those between the ages of 45 to 65 earning 29 percent less than their male counterparts.

It is now clear, after 50 years, that the marketplace alone, even under penalty of law, will not create pay equity between women and men in the workforce.

Despite this recent and welcome passage of Pay Equity legislation in the U. S. House, powerful forces are aligning against it. The Senate’s Cloture or Filibuster Rule requires 60 votes to move ahead with the normal legislative process and it appears there are enough conservative senators to prevent that 60-vote margin from being reached. One of those senators is the Republican Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, who has opposed pay equity legislation. Senator McConnell’s wife is President Bush’s Secretary of Labor, Elain Chao. She has already urged President Bush to veto the legislation should it reach his desk.

Let’s hope and work toward a good outcome in this all-American struggle toward basic equity in the work place.


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Author info

Rep. Pat Williams Rep. Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at the University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West and is Northern Director of Western Progress.

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