Equal pay bill for women fails in the Senate

A bill that would protect women from pay discrimination failed in the Senate yesterday with a vote of 53 to 44.

The Paycheck Fairness Act fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

The 53 to 44 vote was cast along partisan lines, with Democrats supporting the measure and Republicans opposing it. Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine broke rank with the Democrats and voted against the bill.

S. 2199 would strengthen protections for women who are paid less than their male colleagues for doing the same job.

The bill would allow employee to discuss their salaries with each other and allow women to sue their employers for punitive damages as well as back pay. It would also prohibit companies from retaliating against employees who question their pay disparity.

“We want to pass this legislation to end the retaliation, close the loopholes, and lift the veil of secrecy. This, in many ways, will give American women not a raise but what justice demands,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland). “We want to end that discrimination – no retaliation, no loopholes, no veil of secrecy.”

Mikulski pointed out that 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Equal Pay Act, women still make just $0.77 for every $1 men make. Women of color fare a lot worse. African-American women earn $0.64 for every $1 men make, and Hispanic women earn just $0.54 for every $1 men make.

This pay gap affects both highly skilled women – like Kerri Sleeman, a mechanical engineer from Michigan – and workers in the service industry, such as Latoya Weaver, a hotel worker in Maryland who reported being paid $2 an hour less than her male colleagues.

The resulting pay gap would cost each woman on average of about $400,000 in her lifetime, according to Mikulski.

“This has enormous consequences. When you are paid less, it affects not only your paycheck that you take home, but it will affect your retirement because Social Security is pegged to earnings. So when you pay women less, they are going to get less in retirement,” said Mikulski. “This is not fair.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act because “the bill will do nothing to address our nation’s anemic economic growth” and won’t create jobs.

But Mikulski argued that eliminating that gender pay gap would boost the pocketbooks of millions of households – 40% of which women are the chief breadwinners – and thereby stimulate consumer spending and the economy overall.

“One way to help the economy is for people to make more money. Do we know what is one of the best ways to make more money? Pay women equal pay for equal work,” said Mikulski.

Grassley also objected to the bill’s provision allowing employees to seek punitive damages against companies.

“This bill would be a boon to trial lawyers at the expense of job creators and job seekers,” said Grassley.

Mikulski countered that punitive damages should be allowed because many companies that engage in pay discrimination view the fine under the current law as simply “a cost of doing business”.

“If they are afraid of lawsuits, they ought to follow the law,” said Mikulski. “The way to avoid the lawsuit is do not be mean, do not be cruel, do not be unfair, do not be unjust.”

Firing back at those who criticized her for being “too emotional” on the issue, Mikulski vowed to push forward with the Paycheck Fairness Act.

“If we do not pass this bill, I am so emotional I am going to press on. It brings tears to my eyes to know how women, every single day, are working so hard and getting paid less,” said Mikulski. “Then, when I hear all these phony reasons – some are mean and some are meaningless – I do get emotional; I get angry; I get outraged; I get volcanic. And the way I want to channel my emotions is by doing everything we can do to be able to pass this bill.”

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