Something is Wrong With Wages in America

Debra L. Ness

April 12, 2016 | Workplace Fairness > Fair Pay

Cross-posted from Medium.

The annual recognition of Equal Pay Day—the day that marks how far into the year women have had to work to catch up with what men were paid in the previous year —is always a stunning reminder of just how far we still have to go to reach true equality for women in this country. That is true even when it comes to something as fundamental to the well-being of our lives, families and economy as income.

This year, Equal Pay Day is today.

And this year, the reminder of how the gender wage gap harms women and families comes at an especially interesting time. The wage gap has been a painful fact of life in this country since women entered the workforce but, for years, it was largely ignored by federal lawmakers. In Congress today, however, lawmakers across party lines are talking about fair pay and actually debating the best ways to address unequal wages.

Certainly, there are some who say nothing needs to be done — we have laws on the books, they say, and that’s good enough. But they are wrong.

If you believe that existing anti-discrimination measures are good enough, how do you explain that the difference between the median annual pay for women and men who are employed full time, year round in this country is still more than $10,700? That means women are paid just 79 cents for every dollar paid to men. And how do you explain that, according to a new analysis by the National Partnership, wage gaps exist in all 50 states and in all but 10 of the country’s 435 congressional districts (98 percent)? Or that gaps persist across occupation, industry, education and more?

It is true that the Equal Pay Act of 1963 provides protections against pay discrimination, but the gap has narrowed by only 20 cents for every dollar since it took effect. That’s paltry progress in more than 50 years, and the consequences are painful: Our analysis also found that the average woman with a full-time, year-round job would have enough money for 83 more weeks of food, seven more months of mortgage and utilities, or 11 more months of rent every year if the wage gap were eliminated.

It’s not okay that women are losing thousands of dollars a year in precious income that could go toward basic necessities for their families, especially when more than 15.2 million households in the country are headed by women and about 31 percent of them are living in poverty. The gap is markedly larger for mothers, especially single mothers, and women of color.

Several states have taken great strides by passing anti-discrimination laws, raising their minimum wage rates and establishing supportive workplace standards like paid family and medical leave and paid sick days. These are great advances, but a patchwork of progress leaves too many women and families behind.

Federal-level action is what the country’s women, men and families have long needed and deserved. Robust protection of existing laws is critical, but we also need the Paycheck Fairness Act to combat pay discrimination, the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act to create a national paid family and medical leave program, the Healthy Families Act to guarantee paid sick days, and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to strengthen protections against pregnancy discrimination.

Members of Congress should prioritize those bills, and be wary of proposals designed to sound good but that are, in fact, a way for lawmakers who oppose real reforms to claim that they are taking action. Unfortunately, some proposals would do more harm than good.

Even at this moment when our country is deeply divided on many things, there is unprecedented recognition that unequal pay and a lack of paid leave protections are harming women and working families. Now is the time to build consensus around the strongest solutions, so that women and all workers have fair pay, everyone has a fair shot, and we can finally relegate Equal Pay Day and the wage gap that drives it to the past.

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