The Supreme Court’s recent decision in the case of Walmart v. Duke has reignited the national debate about unequal pay that many women face in the American workplace.
Today in America, women are paid on average of 80 cents for every dollar paid to men. For African-American women, it’s 70 cents on the dollar. For Latina women, it’s 60 cents on the dollar.
This means that each time the average woman starts a new job, she starts from a lower base salary. Over time, that pay gap becomes wider and wider. From the start of her career to the end, the average woman stands to lose $380,000 over her lifetime. That means $150 less in her weekly paycheck. It means nearly $8,000 less at the end of the year. When women start at a disadvantage, they stay at a disadvantage. And we all lose.
The Court’s decision in the Walmart lawsuit made no ruling on whether America’s largest employer engaged in unlawful pay discrimination. Instead, the justices focused their ruling on the specific legal issue of whether the large group of women plaintiffs could pursue their complaint through a class action lawsuit.
The 5-4 ruling against the plaintiffs on the class-action issue will not affect the Labor Department’s strong commitment to pursue back wages for groups of women who are victims of employer-wide pay discrimination. DOL does not file class action lawsuits; instead, we enforce an executive order that says federal contractors can’t discriminate based on gender when setting compensation levels for their employees.
DOL has oversight over any company doing at least $10,000 of government business a year. When we seek a remedy for pay discrimination, we automatically seek back wages for all affected employees at a company. We feel this is an important way to level the playing field and curb pay disparities affecting women.
As Labor Secretary, I believe it is my responsibility to use my authority to close the pay gap so women can earn their fair share and provide the income support their families rely upon. After all, unequal pay doesn’t just affect women. It affects families, too. It’s 20 percent less food mothers can put on the table, 20 percent less they can spend on their kids’ education, 20 percent less to pay the gas bill.
Over the past year, my Office of Federal Contract Compliance has substantially shifted its enforcement priorities. Last year, 14 percent of their investigations involved compensation cases. This year, that number will rise to between 20 and 40 percent.
Last year, the Paycheck Fairness Act was just two votes short of passing in Congress. The Obama administration remains committed to this legislation.
We need to close loopholes that give employers unjustified defenses to discrimination. We need to strengthen the ban on retaliation against those who complain about unequal pay. We need to rescind the Bush-era guidelines that prevent effective enforcement of equal pay laws.
We also need to create more flexible workplaces so women don’t have to choose between motherhood and a fulfilling career. To that end, my Wage & Hour division has begun enforcing a new provision in the Affordable Care Act that guarantees break time for nursing mothers. For the first year of a baby’s life, employers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act—regardless of the size of their business—are required to provide reasonable break time and a place shielded from view and free from intrusion, for a mother to express breast milk for her nursing child.
We’re living in the year 2011—not 1911. Women who are running companies, saving patients, making products and providing vital services deserve to be compensated based on their job responsibilities and their performance—not on outdated gender roles.
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