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Fulfilling the Promise of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act | Commentary

A little more than five years ago, after years of fighting for the rights of those demanding pay equality, we stood together at the White House watching President Barack Obama take a historic step in protecting American workers when he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. This law restored the rights of employees to have their day in court for ongoing wage discrimination taken away by the Supreme Court in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear case.

Yet with women on average earning 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts — and the gap even larger for women of color — it was tough to celebrate this anniversary last month, as it reminds us our work is far from finished.

While the Ledbetter Act gave back women their day in court, the legislation did not give women new tools to combat the wage gap itself. We need Congress and the administration to act now to do just that. In Congress, the next step in attaining equal pay for equal work is the Paycheck Fairness Act — a bill that would amend the Equal Pay Act to give workers stronger enforcement tools and remedies to help close, for once and for all, the pay gap between men and women. The bill would, among other things, make sure that employers could not pay men and women differently without a business justification and prohibit retaliation against workers who inquire about their employers’ wage practices or disclose their own wages, all while providing important small-business exceptions and assistance.

But while we continue to urge Congress to act, the administration can take action now to help ensure pay equity. The president could issue an executive order banning retaliation against the employees of federal contractors for disclosing or inquiring about their wages as well as request additional data collection from the Department of Labor.

Research indicates that nearly half of all U.S. workers are either forbidden or strongly discouraged from discussing their pay with colleagues. The pernicious impact of such policies is that they often prevent women from finding out if they are being paid less than their male co-workers, making it impossible for them to challenge discriminatory practices.

If passed, the Paycheck Fairness Act would apply to virtually all employees, but in the meantime, an executive order could provide immediate relief to the roughly 26 million people in America who work for federal contractors by allowing them to discuss their salaries without fear of losing their jobs. Goodyear was a government contractor — taxpayer dollars subsidized their policies — and employees were not allowed to discuss their salaries. That is one of the reasons it took so long to discover the discrimination that was happening there.

It is time for this to come to an end. Overwhelming majorities of Americans support federal actions that give women more tools to get fair pay in the workplace, including majorities of self-identified Democrats, Republicans and independents. Perhaps this is because in 6 out of 10 families, women are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners, and families are affected by the fact that women are not bringing home the wages they deserve. Moreover, when businesses do not play by the rules, they make it harder on those companies trying to pay employees fairly.

Before signing the bill, Obama made clear that this bill is not just about its namesake or his two daughters or the countless women who are still facing unlawful pay disparities; it is also about the families who have to make ends meet with less because of wage discrimination. He said in signing the bill:

“Equal pay is by no means just a women’s issue — it’s a family issue. It’s about parents who find themselves with less money for tuition and child care; couples who wind up with less to retire on; households where one breadwinner is paid less than she deserves; that’s the difference between affording the mortgage — or not; between keeping the heat on, or paying the doctor bills — or not.”

As another anniversary closes on the signing of this bill, we continue the fight for them, too.

Lilly Ledbetter was the plaintiff in Ledbetter v. Goodyear and the namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Deborah J. Vagins is senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office and co-chairwoman of the Paycheck Fairness Act Coalition.

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