PORTLAND – As the U.S. Congress has returned to Washington from its summer recess, much remains to be done, but there is little time before they leave again for campaign season.

In this economic downturn, there is no more urgent priority than helping families make ends meet.

Unfortunately, for women in the work force, there remains a pernicious wage gap between them and men doing the same job, making this difficult time even worse.

Women, on average, still make only 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. And according to the National Women’s Law Center, Maine women in 2007 earned, on average, just 76 cents for every dollar earned by a man, translating into lower average salaries — $21,022 for women compared to $31,639 for men.

Because of their lower earnings, Maine women also have less to fall back on if they lose their jobs. In 2007, women in Maine were more likely to live in poverty than men — 13 percent of women as compared to 9 percent of men.

This is particularly relevant when the unemployment rate in Maine is at record highs and the cost of groceries and home electricity have all increased. Time is running out.

But before Congress adjourns again, the House and Senate have an opportunity to really do something to help. The Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 182), a much-needed update to the Equal Pay Act of 1963, sits in the U.S. Senate poised for passage.

This law was intended to ensure equal pay for equal work, but over time, because of weak remedies and loopholes in the law, significant disparities in pay persist.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would give employees the legal tools they need to finally close the wage gap by, for example, requiring employers to demonstrate that wage differences between men and women doing the same work have a business justification; prohibiting retaliation against workers who inquire about their wages; leveling the playing field by ensuring that women can obtain the same remedies as those subject to employment discrimination based on their race or national origin; and reinstating the collection of important wage-related data.

The bill would also provide technical assistance to employers and maintain protections for small businesses.

The bill already passed the U.S. House of Representatives with bipartisan support and now has 40 co-sponsors in the Senate, more than it has ever had in any previous Congress.

In addition, President Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden and other senior members of the administration have announced their support for this important legislation.

The recently formed White House Middle Class Task Force and the National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force, an inter-agency working group established to examine issues of pay equity, have also both recommended the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act as an important step towards the economic security of women and our nation’s families.

While Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have not yet announced support for the bill, we need to hear their voices.

Their support could make the difference for Maine women who are receiving unfair wages and for Maine families who are living on less than they deserve.

They should know that the Paycheck Fairness Act also has widespread public support. According to a recent nationwide poll of registered voters, the Paycheck Fairness Act has the backing of the American public; 84 percent of registered voters polled said they supported “a new law that would provide women more tools to get fair pay in the workplace.”

Large majorities of men and women — Republicans, Democrats and independents alike — all strongly support such a law. Pay equity should not be about party politics and this poll demonstrates that voters agree.

The Paycheck Fairness Act provides important tools so that Maine workers, and all workers across this country, can bring home the pay they have rightfully earned.

With our current economic realities, this legislation provides a necessary safety net for Maine families.

Before the Senate comes back home, they need to give the people waiting at home, a little more help to make ends meet.