Labor - And A Whole Lot More

It's Time We Kept Our Promise to Working Women
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It's been 44 years now since America's working women were legally promised "equal pay for equal work," yet their wages continue to lag far behind those of 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 narrowed, but at a snail's pace. Women's pay is still almost 25 percent less than that of men -- currently 77 cents per dollar.

The difference 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.

"For many families," notes AFL-CIO Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson, "equal pay could mean living above the poverty level, decent health care, child care, a college education for the kids and a secure retirement."

The number of women holding relatively high-paying managerial and administrative positions once held almost entirely by men in medicine, law, journalism and other fields increased during the 1970s and 80s. But that progress has all but halted, and today, as in the 60s and earlier, most working women hold traditional lower-paying "women's jobs" in the sales, clerical and service fields.

Ninety-eight percent of pre-school and kindergarten teachers are women, for instance, 97 percent of secretaries and administrative assistants, 93 percent of receptionists, 91 percent of registered nurses, 88 percent of house cleaners.

Even in those jobs, women invariably earn less than men who work beside them at identical tasks.

Adequately enforcing the 44-year-old Equal Pay Act would help. But more than that, the narrow legal definition of "equal work" must be expanded. 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.

What should count is not a worker's gender or what job she holds. Pay for women and men alike should be based on such things as how much training the worker has had, how much education and experience, what skills, how much effort the job requires, what responsibilities it entails, how much stress, as well as how valuable it is to the employer.

The standard should no longer be "equal pay for equal work," but the much fairer and sensible, "Equal pay for work of equal value."

"Fair Pay" bills to make that concept the law have been rejected over the past dozen years by Republican-controlled Congresses. But there's finally hope. The new Democratic majority is very likely to get behind the latest bills, introduced by Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.

Employers would no longer be required only to equalize the pay of men and women holding jobs with identical titles and duties. They'd have to consider those other matters that determine a worker's true worth, regardless of the worker's position.

Women would find it much easier to prove discrimination, in court or elsewhere. Fines and other penalties would be greater than under the current law, and there'd be safeguards against retaliation for women who spoke out against their treatment.

The chances of passage seem better this year, in part because of election-year polls which showed that women voters ranked pay equity as their No. 1 issue.

It should rank at least close to No. 1 with anyone who believes in the equality that's so often proclaimed by Americans and their political leaders, but so often lacking.

Copyright (c) 2007 Dick Meister