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Dina Bakst's picture

Let's play a game: take out a slip of paper and write your salary down, crumple it up, and trade papers with a co-worker of the opposite sex. This is what one New York woman did just a few years ago and she was shocked by the results--she found out she was receiving far less compensation than a male co-worker who was doing the same work as her.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act (EPA), signed into law by President John F. Kennedy. As President Kennedy remarked when signing the law in 1963, "Our economy today depends upon women in the labor force." This is even truer today. Back in 1963, only a third of the workforce was made up of women, and now that figure is 50% of the workforce. And as a recent Pew Research study revealed, women are the sole or primary breadwinners in 40% of American families. Unfortunately, even though it’s been five decades since the EPA passed, there is still a pernicious wage gap that persists—women earn between 64 and 84 cents to a man’s dollar in New York State. The long-term economic consequences are simply devastating: women are twice as likely as men to live out old age in poverty.

Thankfully, the New York State Women’s Equality Act (WEA), introduced last week by Governor Cuomo, would work to eliminate this wage gap. The WEA would tighten exemptions in the law, which currently allow employers to cite nearly any factor other than sex—legitimate or otherwise—to justify pay differentials. The WEA would also prohibit employers from terminating or retaliating against employees for sharing wage information, allowing women to uncover discrimination early and enforce their rights under the law. Finally, the law would provide for increased damages, helping to deter illegal activity from happening in the first place and incentivize employers to treat women fairly.

Closing the wage gap also requires strengthening existing anti-discrimination laws and addressing other factors that contribute to its persistence. The Women’s Equality Act would provide for fair pay in other holistic ways. Pregnant women are routinely placed on unpaid leave--or even worse, fired from their jobs--when they request a modest accommodation to stay safely working. This results in wage hits in both the short- and long-term; when women are pushed out, they’re less likely to be hired back. The Women’s Equality Act would address this problem by strengthening legal protections for pregnant workers in New York State. In addition, the Act would make it explicitly illegal for employers to discriminate against parents, who are not only paid less (moms are paid 5% less, per child, than their childless counterparts, meaning that a mother of three is paid 15% less), but are also less likely to be hired or promoted at work.

But we need all 10 points of the Women’s Equality Act in order to effectively close the wage gap and promote equality in New York State. When a woman is empowered in different areas of her life, such as at work, feeling safe in the home, and her healthcare decisions, she will be better able to participate in the economy and earn what she deserves.

As President Kennedy said, the Equal Pay Act “is a first step. It affirms our determination that when women enter the labor force they will find equality in their pay envelopes." Let's take the next step and pass the Women's Equality Act this month. New York can be a leader for the entire nation so we don’t have to wait another half a century to be paid what we deserve.

Cross posted from A Better Balance's blog.

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