This woman's work: Pay gap persists, 50 years after landmark law

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On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, prohibiting employers from discriminating against women by paying them less for the same jobs, performed under the same working conditions as men. In his remarks upon signing the law, Kennedy equated women’s rights in the workplace to voting rights, and he declared that “while much remains to be done to achieve full equality of economic opportunity–for the average woman worker earns only 60 percent of the average wage for men–this legislation is a significant step forward.”

Fifty years later, a lot has changed for American women in the workplace, but one thing has not: they still earn less on average than men who perform the same jobs. And while the wage gap has shrunk, it remains remarkably high, and persistent, particularly for women of color.

A panel at the National Press Club on Wednesday (which I was invited to moderate, full disclosure…) sought to highlight the continuing wage gap between men and women, and to push for laws activists say could fix it. The National Women’s Law Center held the event at Washington’s National Press Club, culminating in a speech by Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who spoke passionately about Kennedy’s landmark bill — which came a year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and two years before the Voting Rights Act, both signed after Kennedy’s assassination by Lyndon Johnson.

“The Equal Pay Act was signed at a time when women made up one third of the workforce,” DeLauro pointed out, noting that it came nearly 70 years after an 1894 study by the Association of Collegiate Allumnae and the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, which found that men were earning more than twice as much as women for the same 19th century jobs — jobs like bookkeeping.

“During World War II,” DeLauro said, “women including my own mother took jobs in factories to support the family.” Today, four in ten women are their family’s primary bread winner, and yet women earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men — a gap that the NWLC calculates amounts to $11,084 in lost wages every year.

The Law Center, led by it’s co-president, Marcia Greenberger, has been fighting, along with DeLauro and all 201 House Democrats as cosponsors, for a new law, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which the Center says would modernize the law Kennedy signed, and add to the protections passed in the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009.

Among the issues the Center says remain for women workers: the inability to discuss their pay versus that of their coworkers without the threat of retaliation or even dismissal under current law, inadequate access to childcare and parental or maternity leave, inadequate childcare access for working women (which DeLauro says could be solved by expanding Head Start and instituting President Obama’s call for universal pre-Kindegarten) and a minimum wage that hasn’t kept up with inflation. If it had, the federal minimum wage would be $10.55, she said.

Other panelists spoke in very personal terms on Wednesday. Labor rights activist Aijen Poo talked about the concentration of women in low-wage fields like home healthcare, domestic work, food service and other fields not covered by fair labor practice laws. “Every eight seconds someone in this country turns 65,” she warned, noting that many of these professions will become increasingly valuable to a retiring Baby Boom generation, making now a critical time to push for fair pay and treatment of these workers.

Also at issue, the continuing decline of labor union membership in the U.S., which means fewer workers, particularly at the low end of the income scale, able to band together to demand better pay.

Ann Marie Douchon told of her own ten-year battle for equal pay, after finding out that she was being paid significantly less than a male colleague, who had graduated the same day, the same year, from the same college, and with the same degree she had. Her battle with her female boss took years of struggle, and gained urgency when her teacher husband saw his own job, and the family’s livelihood, threatened. She wrote about her ordeal last June for the Moms Rising blog.

Women of color hit particularly hard

“The wage gap for women of color is shocking” the NWLC’s Fatima Goss-Graves told theGrio late Wednesday. “And in some states, African American and Hispanic women make less than half the wages of white men.”

The NAACP’s D.C. director, Hillary Shelton, spoke of the even greater wage gap faced by black and Hispanic women, who earn just 64 cents and 55 cents for every dollar earned by their white male counterparts nationwide. That translates to $18,817 in lost annual pay for African-American women and $23,298 in lost pay for Hispanic women in 2011 according to the NWLC.

In some states, the gap is even more yawning, with black women earning just 49 cents to the dollar versus white male workers in Louisiana, the state with the largest African-American wage gap. Black women earned just 55 cents on the dollar in Mississippi, 53 cents in Washington D.C., 51 cents in Utah, and 57 cents in Alabama and South Carolina.

For African-American women, the wage gap is smallest in states with small black populations, like Vermont (79 cents), Idaho (76 cents), North Dakota (72 cents), Kentucky (71 cents) and Hawaii (70 cents.) Shelton pointed out that while black women lose out on wages to both white and black men, despite higher levels of college graduation, black men face a wage gap versus white men, too.

For Hispanic women, the news isn’t any better. They face their largest wage gap in California, at just 43 cents for every dollar earned by a white, non-Hispanic man working full time. And in other states, the wage gap is similarly dismal: 43 cents in New Jersey, 44 cents in Washington D.C and Alabama, 45 cents in Texas and 46 cents in Maryland. Like African-American women, Hispanic women fair best where they live least: in Vermont (72 cents), Maine and New Hampshire (69 cents( Montana (68 cents), North Dakota (65 cents) and Hawaii (64 cents.)

And the fact that black and Hispanic households are more likely to be headed by unmarried women means higher rates of poverty, and greater reliance on public assistance programs by these women, along with the constant risk of total financial collapse should the breadwinner’s job be lost, which the Center warns contributes to a greater unwillingness among women of color to stand up for fair pay in their workplaces.

“At a time when families are relying increasingly on women’s wages, it’s especially critical to close this gap,” said Greenberg in a statement released prior to the form. “Equal pay is no abstract principle for women and their families.”

The NWLC’s Fatima Goss Graves explained that while not all women have the opportunity Douchon did to discover the pay gap they face, women do have a right to seek redress, including back pay, if they discover that they’ve been discriminated against.

She said public policy, however, must change if the remaining 13 cents of the wage gap will be closed.

What’s missing are the incentives to companies to provide paycheck fairness, and aggressive penalties if they don’t, Goss Graves explained during the panel. The Paycheck Fairness Act would extend labor protections to nearly every employer type in the U.S., and would provide stiff penalties to employers who retaliate against workers for discussing their salaries.

The House has passed the law twice, but it has been blocked in the U.S. Senate by the Republican minority, using the fillibuster. Efforts to reintroduce it in the House have been blocked by the Republican majority, including members like Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who said during an appearance on “Meet the Press” last Sunday that women don’t really want equal pay laws.

“We will never close the wage if we don’t move forward with policies to address the barriers that women of color face in the workplace,” Goss Graves told theGrio.

An updated report from the NWLC on the continuing wage gap will be released on June 10th, the 50th anniversary of the landmark bill JFK signed.

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @TheReidReport.