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Washington Labor & Employment Wire » Senate HELP Committee Holds Hearing on Pay Equity

Senate HELP Committee Holds Hearing on Pay Equity

On March 11, the Senate Committee on Health Education Labor and Pensions (”HELP”) convened a hearing on the problem of gender pay inequity entitled, “A Fair Share for All: Pay Equity in the New American Workplace.”In his opening remarks, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Chairman of the Committee, noted that despite passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963 women today make only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Sen. Harkin characterized pay inequity as “not just a women’s issue, but a family issue” and expressed strong support for the Paycheck Fairness Act introduced by Senators Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), which was passed overwhelming by the House in January. Harkin said the legislation would provide the same pay for equivalent jobs, require employers to disclose pay scales and job descriptions, and give women more information to enable to negotiate better deals for themselves.

Ranking Member Michael Enzi (R-Wyoming) expressed his concern that the Paycheck Fairness Act would subject employers to more litigation, particular large class actions. He also criticized the bill for adding more “burdensome government reporting requirements,” and argued that improved job training nationwide and an improved economy would resolve many pay inequity issues. Sen. Dodd rejected criticism about the possibility for increased litigation and argued that the legislation would simply ensure women get the pay that they deserve.

The first witness at the hearing was the Honorable Rosa DeLauro, U.S. Representative for Connecticut’s 3rd District. She stated that the Paycheck Fairness Act would “close numerous longstanding loopholes in the Equal Pay Act” and stiffen “penalties for employers who discriminate based on gender.” Rep. DeLauro noted that the legislation would strengthen remedies to include punitive and compensatory damages, remedies already afforded to victims of race-based discrimination under the law. In response to the prediction that the legislation would result of in torrent of class actions lawsuits, Rep. Delauro argued that employers would successfully adjust to the new legislation and avoid any increased litigation effect, just as employers did in response to the passage of race-based discrimination laws.

The next witness was Stuart Ishimaru, Acting Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (”EEOC”). In addition to reiterating many of the facts showing that the gender wage gap persists, Ishimaru noted that caregiver discrimination is a part of the problem. Ishimaru explained that women are more than twice as likely to work part time, often because they need to provide care for kids and other family members, and that part time work pays less and is less likely to come with benefits. Ishimaru stated, “gender-based wage discrimination is especially untenable now, in this economy, as most families have come to rely on the incomes brought in by working women to make ends meet.” Ishimaru continued that EEOC’s “work would undoubtedly be strengthened by the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act” and that the legislation would “provide essential tools” such as improved wage data “towards realizing the promise of equal pay.”

Heather Boushey, Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress, also testified before the panel stressing that women lose an average of $434,000 over a lifetime due to the gender wage gap. Boushey stated that the “largest chunk of the gender pay gap is due to combined effect of the segregation of men and women into different industries and occupations.” Boushey argued that the “data provisions of the Paycheck Fairness Act will allow employees to access the information they need to understand if their pay is at the market rate.”

The remaining witnesses were Deborah L. Brake, Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh, Deborah L. Frett , Chief Executive Officer of the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation, and Jane McFetridge, a partner at Jackson Lewis, LLP.