Labor - And A Whole Lot More

All Workers Are Equal - Unless They're Women
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A LEGISLATURE SHOWS CONGRESS HOW
A LEGISLATURE SHOWS CONGRESS HOW
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It's been four decades since federal law first promised working women "equal pay for equal work." Yet their wages continue to lag far behind those of working men.

Back in 1963 when President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, women were making an average of 58 cents for every dollar earned by men. The gap has been narrowing, but at a snail's pace. Women's pay still is more than 20 percent less - currently 79 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Recent surveys show that the median pay of working women -- $552 a week -- is nearly $150 less than men's median weekly pay. The disparity is even greater for minority women. Latinas, for instance, earn only 53 cents for every dollar earned by men - $368 a week to the men's $695.

The difference between men's and women's pay can mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the working life of a woman, and retirement benefits much lower than those of most men, since pension amounts are based on earnings. Many women lack pensions entirely and such other standard benefits as paid sick leave and health care.

It doesn't matter whether women have the same levels of education, experience and skills as men in their line of work. It doesn't matter if their jobs involve the same effort, responsibility and working conditions. Their pay still lags behind.

Although increasing numbers of women are filling relatively high-paying managerial and administrative jobs - albeit for less pay than men in the same positions - most working women are still doing traditional low-paying "women's work" in the sales, clerical and service fields.

Most of the women are working out of necessity. More than half provide at least half of their families' incomes. About 40 percent are single mothers providing the only income. Many are paid so little they have to take second jobs to make ends meet, moonlighting almost as frequently as men.

Guaranteeing women equal pay "is not just a woman's issue," notes Linda Chavez-Thompson, the AFL-CIO's executive vice president. "It's a bread-and-butter issue for America's working families. For many families, equal pay could mean living above the poverty level, decent health care, child care, a college education for the kids and a secure retirement."

Since women make up nearly half of the workforce, providing them greater compensation - and spending power - would pump up the economy generally as well,

The AFL-CIO and its Democratic Party allies have been seeking to strengthen and tighten the generally lax enforcement of equal pay and anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws on the state and federal levels. But they've been thwarted by the opposition of Republican lawmakers and other employer backers.

The reformers are seeking as well to improve job training opportunities for women, increase their access to health insurance and paid parental leave, and set up employer and government-financed child care centers. They also want better treatment for part-time and temporary workers, most of whom are women, and an increase in the minimum wage, the rate at which so many women are paid.

Their attempt to get employers to voluntarily grant equal treatment to women got a major boost recently when a judge allowed six women to file a class action suit charging that giant retailer Wal-Mart had illegally discriminated against as many as 1.6 million women employees. Wal-Mart is appealing the decision, but whatever the outcome, other employers are certain to now try to improve their treatment of women, lest they also get caught up in such time-consuming and expensive legal action.

It's especially important that the reformers are aiming to expand the narrow legal definition of "equal work." Women claiming wage discrimination generally have had to prove they held the same positions as men whose pay was higher. But though a woman's job may be different, that does not necessarily make her work any less valuable to her employer and society at large than that of a man holding a different job.

As the reformers insist, the standard should not be "equal pay for equal work," but the much fairer and sensible, "Equal pay for work of equal value."

Copyright Dick Meister