Maine’s wage gap leaves women and their families shortchanged by thousands of dollars a year — and hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a lifetime. The wage gap not only depresses women’s incomes over the short term but also weakens retirement security down the road. AUGUSTA – Next Tuesday, April 20, is the nationwide observance of Equal Pay Day 2010 — representing the point when women’s wages finally catch up to men’s wages from last year.

According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics, women who work in full-time, year-round jobs earn, on average, 77 cents to every dollar earned by men working in full-time, year-round jobs. The wage gap is even wider for African-American women and Latinas. In Maine, women’s earnings are 2 cents higher than the national average, with women earning about 79 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

But, let’s not get too excited about that 2 cents. Maine’s wage gap leaves women and their families shortchanged by thousands of dollars a year — and hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a lifetime. The wage gap not only depresses women’s incomes over the short term but also weakens retirement security down the road.

Achieving pay equity means more now than ever before. According to Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress report, “A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything,” women are now the breadwinner or co-breadwinner in two-thirds of all American families.

In fact, women now equal men in the labor force, meaning more families rely on women’s wages to make ends meet. That’s why all of us — women and men — have such a huge stake in eliminating the wage gap.

The high costs of the wage gap were brought to dramatic light last month with a visit to Maine by Lilly Ledbetter, the plaintiff in a major U.S. Supreme Court case and the woman for whom the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is named.

She told her story to a packed house at a reception sponsored by the Maine Women’s Policy Center.

Lilly worked at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. for 19 years before she discovered that she was being paid 30 percent to 40 percent less for the same work as her male peers.

She sued for pay discrimination, and her case eventually got to the Supreme Court.

Lilly lost. The 5-4 ruling effectively allowed employers to discriminate as long as they weren’t caught within the first six months. Fortunately, in January 2009, one of President Obama’s first acts was to sign legislation restoring a worker’s right to challenge illegal pay discrimination.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was great news for women. However, what that law did not do is address some of the baseline reasons that the wage gap still persists. That’s why we need the Paycheck Fairness Act.

The Paycheck Fairness Act is a sorely needed update to the original Equal Pay Act signed 47 years ago. It would close loopholes and strengthen incentives to prevent pay discrimination. It would create new opportunities for monitoring and enforcement — for example, through better data collection and giving businesses the tools they need to craft fair pay structures.

Importantly, it would also bring the U.S. Equal Pay Act into line with Maine’s state law, which prohibits punishing workers who share wage information — something Lilly could have used in her case. The simple truth is, you can’t address unequal pay if you don’t know it’s happening.

Removing penalties against workers who ask about salary information will help employers and employees recognize and stop illegal pay discrimination — before the dollars add up.

This legislation passed in the House, and the Senate is currently poised to address it. Right now is the time to encourage Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins — both champions of equal pay — to support the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Are women workers really worth less than men? Any American of good conscience would say “no.” We must ensure that our laws and workplace practices say “no” as well.

In the midst of this unprecedented recession, pay equity is more than a question of fairness. It’s a question of survival. It’s time to end the wage gap once and for all.

 

– Special to the Press Herald