Senate Democrats Call On Congress to Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act

On May 23, 2012, a group of Senate Democrats, led by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) along with various interest groups called on Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 797 and H.R. 1591) which was introduced in 2011 by Senator Mikulski and Representative DeLauro (D-CT) in 2011 and would update the Equal Pay Act.

The Equal Pay Act was signed into law by President Kennedy in 1963, for the purpose of eradicating the gender pay gap by making it illegal for employers to pay disproportional wages to men and women who perform the same or similar work.   According to Senator Mikulski, while the Equal Pay Act has significantly narrowed the gender wage gap, there are loopholes within the law which have allowed the continuation of sizable pay disparities so that women today make only 77 cents for every dollar made by men for comparable work.

For instance, the Equal Pay Act currently allows compensatory compensation of back wages, but does not permit employees to recover punitive damages.  This is in stark contrast to other federal statutes, such as Title VII, which allow the employee to recover punitive damages for intentional discrimination.  The Paycheck Fairness Act would amend the Equal Pay Act to allow for the recovery of punitive damages, and would also require employers to show the pay disparity is due to something other than gender and is related to job performance.  Additionally, the current Equal Pay Act requires employees to “opt-in” to a class-action.  The Paycheck Fairness Act would eliminate this requirement, and would make all employees in a particular class a party unless they “opted-out” which is in line with Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Senator Reid (D-NV) is expected to bring the bill to the floor of the Senate for a vote when the Senate returns the week of June 4, 2012.   The decision to bring the bill to the floor at this time is significant for several reasons.  First, June 10 marks the forty-ninth anniversary of the enactment of the Equal Pay.  However, Senator Reid’s decision to bring the bill to the floor also has significant political ramifications.   A recent NBC/Wall-Street Journal Poll shows Mitt Romney trailing President Obama by fifteen percent with women voters.   This vote is coming on the heels of the Senate debate over the Violence Against Women Act, and should Senate Republicans oppose the Paycheck Fairness Act, Democrats will surely fire back with an intense public relations campaign painting Republicans working to stifle the advancement of women.

In 2010, the bill failed in the Senate by a vote of fifty-eight to forty-one with no Republicans voting in favor.  This bill has historically been very partisan, and given the current political landscape, and make-up of the Senate, history could very well repeat itself again this year.