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President John F. Kennedy delivers remarks after signing the Equal Pay Act in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington, D.C. • Credit: Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

LABOR HISTORY

Fight continues to close gender pay gap despite federal, state legislation over the last 50 years

By KATE MOSTACCIO

This June marks 58 years since President John F. Kennedy signed one of the first federal anti-discrimination wage laws – the Equal Pay Act (EPA) – prohibiting wage discrimination based on sex.

The EPA protected both males and females and to bring a claim “[t]he jobs being compared must require substantially equal skill, effort, and responsibility and be performed under similar working conditions within the same establishment,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL).

Since passing the EPA, Congress has expanded federal protection against compensation discrimination through additional laws. These laws also prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions, transgender status, gender identity, sexual orientation and sex stereotyping), age (over 40), marital status, political affiliation and disability.

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, named after a woman who discovered her employer was paying her less than men doing the same job. She took her pay discrimination complaint all the way to the Supreme Court, and while the suit was unsuccessful on the grounds she brought the claim too late, Obama’s legislation amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 so unfair complaints can be filed within 180 days of a discriminatory paycheck and the time resets with each subsequent check.

But, despite the passage of legislation over the years, the battle for equal pay for equal work still plagues the workforce.

Average weekly earnings of full-time workers were $989 in the first quarter of 2021. Women had average weekly earnings of $900, 82.6 percent of the $1,089 average for men. The women’s-to-men’s earnings ratio varied by race and ethnicity, with white women earning 81.6 percent as much as their male counterparts compared with 92.1 percent for Black women, 80.5 percent for Asian women, and 88.3 percent for Hispanic women, according to the USDOL Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic widened the gap, with women’s labor force participation at 55.8 percent, equal to the rate in 1987. The pandemic essentially forced many women out of the workforce to care for children amid day care closures and remote or hybrid school models, with women of color and those working in lower wage occupations hit hardest.

“So what can we do achieve pay equity?” wrote Janelle Jones, the chief economist for the USDOL in a blog on the state of the gender pay gap in March 2021. “There’s clearly a lot of work to be done, but it is possible to level the playing field for working women by increasing transparency around wages across the board, disrupting occupational segregation, expanding access to paid leave and child and elder care, and creating more good union jobs.”