A federal law, the Equal Pay Act (29 U.S.C. § 206), requires employers to pay all employees equally for equal work, regardless of their gender. It was passed in 1963 as an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act.
While the Act technically protects both women and men from gender discrimination in pay rates, it was passed to help rectify the problems faced by women workers because of sex discrimination in employment. And in practice, this law has almost always been applied to situations where women are being paid less than men for doing similar jobs.
The wage gap has narrowed slowly since 1980, when women's earnings were only 60% of men's; the 1998 figure has women earning about 76% as much as working men. But the Equal Pay Act likely has little to do with it. The law's biggest weakness is that it is strictly applied only when men and women are doing the same work. Since women have historically been banned from many types of work and had only limited entree to managerial positions, the Equal Pay Act in reality affects very few women.
To successfully raise a claim under the Equal Pay Act, you must show that two employees, one male and one female:
- are working in the same place
- are doing equal work, and
- are receiving unequal pay.
You must also show that the employees in those jobs received unequal pay because of their genders.
Who Is Covered
The Equal Pay Act applies to all employees covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which means virtually all employees are covered. But in addition, the Equal Pay Act covers professional employees, executives and managers--including administrators and teachers in elementary and secondary schools.
Determining Equal Work
Jobs do not have to be identical for the courts to consider them equal. In general, the courts have ruled that two jobs are equal for the purposes of the Equal Pay Act when both require equal levels of skill, effort and responsibility and are performed under similar conditions.
There is a lot of room for interpretation here, of course. But the general rule is that if there are only small differences in the skill, effort or responsibility required, two jobs should still be regarded as equal. The focus is on the duties actually performed. Job titles, classifications and descriptions may weigh in to the determination, but are not all that is considered.
The biggest problems arise where two jobs are basically the same, but one includes a few extra duties. It is perfectly legal to award higher pay for the extra duties, but some courts have looked askance at workplaces in which the higher-paying jobs with extra duties are consistently reserved for workers of one gender.
Determining Equal Pay
In general, pay systems that result in employees of one gender being paid less than the other gender for doing equal work are allowed under the Equal Pay Act if the pay system is actually based on a factor other than gender, such as a merit or seniority system.
How to Take Action
The Equal Pay Act was passed one year before Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Both laws prohibit wage discrimination based on gender, but Title VII goes beyond ensuring equal pay for equal work, as it also bars discrimination in hiring, firing and promotions. In addition, Title VII broadly prohibits other forms of discrimination, including that based on race, color, religion and national origin.
In cases where both Title VII and the Equal Pay Act apply, the Equal Pay Act offers two potential advantages:
- You can file a lawsuit under the Equal Pay Act without first filing a complaint with the EEOC.
- Unlike Title VII, the Equal Pay Act does not require proof that the employer acted intentionally when discriminating. That can make an Equal Pay Act case much easier to win in court.
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