Pay Discrimination Bill May Finally Be Headed to House Floor

By Staff Report

Jul. 25, 2008

After 11 years, a bill that would increase penalties for pay discrimination against women could soon be on the floor of the House of Representatives.

On Thursday, July 24, the House Education and Labor Committee approved the Paycheck Fairness Act on a party-line vote, 26-17. The bill updates a mid-1960s law that prohibits wage disparities between men and women performing the same job.

The measure would put gender discrimination on par with racial discrimination in terms of remedies by allowing women to sue for punitive and compensatory damages.

“If we are serious about closing the gender pay gap, we must get serious about punishing those who would otherwise scoff at the weak sanctions under current law,” said Rep. George Miller, D-California and chairman of the committee. He cited Census Bureau statistics that show women make 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

Under the bill, a company that pays women at a different rate than men would have to prove that the practice is based on a business necessity.

The measure would permit workers to share pay information and prohibit employers from banning such discussions from the office. It also would establish Department of Labor grants for “negotiation skills training programs for girls and women.”

Republicans criticized the bill, saying it was unnecessary because the Equal Pay Act of 1963 already makes wage discrimination illegal. They asserted that the bill would increase litigation costs and undermine recruiting and hiring.

“What we’re really debating here today is whether it should be easier for trial lawyers to cash in under the Equal Pay Act, and whether it should be more difficult for employers to make legitimate employment decisions based on factors other than sex,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-California and the ranking member of the labor committee.

Republicans kept the bill bottled up while they controlled the House. It was in the hopper for a decade before finally getting a hearing, which didn’t occur until Democrats captured the majority last year.

Now it could be speeding along. The bill’s author, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, said it could be placed on the House calendar for a vote as early as the week of July 28.

“This is the thrill of a lifetime,” she said in an interview after the labor committee action.

The full House will almost certainly approve the bill, which has 230 co-sponsors. But the Senate companion bill is unlikely to make it through the legislative process this year.

Nonetheless, a House vote would help Democrats politically. Battling pay disparity is an issue that the party believes is one of its strong suits, especially as the economy falters.

Polls show presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama leading Republican rival Sen. John McCain by a substantial margin among women.

“There is a sense of economic insecurity for women,” DeLauro said. “It’s palpable nationwide.”

Before the final labor committee vote on the bill, Republicans offered an amendment that framed wage worries in a different way, linking them to rising gas prices. It would have directed the Bureau of Labor Statistics to conduct a study on “the increase in the price of gasoline to unprecedented levels … and the effect of such an increase on the income of women workers.”

That amendment and one that would allow employees to take compensatory time off in lieu of overtime pay were denied a vote because Democrats said they were not related to the underlying bill.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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