A group of young women demonstrate in favor of equal pay for equal work, a principle that has been a central tenet of the feminist movement since the 1970s. Now, it appears that the concept may inch closer toward reality: the House passed a bill last week that would solidify a ban on wage discrimination in the workplace. (Photo: Britannica.com)
Washington - House Democrats pushed through legislation Thursday that would give women new tools to combat pay discrimination.
The pay equity measure, which passed by a 247-178 vote, would treat gender discrimination involving pay in the same as race, disability and age discrimination. The bill would allow for compensatory and punitive damages, ban employers from retaliating against workers who share their salary with colleagues, and force employers to prove that paying a women less than a man is job-related and necessary.
"This is a historic step forward in the fight for equal rights for women," said Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
Congress passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, but Democrats said companies continually have found ways around it. The Institute of Women's Policy Research says wage disparity will cost a woman as much as $2 million over her lifetime in lost wages.
"Some will have you believe that the wage gap for women is a myth, that we already have laws in place to make pay discrimination on the basis of gender illegal," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. "But just because something is illegal, does not mean that it does not continue to happen."
Republicans said the legislation would benefit trial lawyers, a Democratic constituency.
The bill "isn't needed to protect women from wage discrimination. Such protection is already found in the law," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of Calif., the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee. "At the end of the day this bill will invite more lawyers to file more lawsuits because it offers them a bigger payday."
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., said companies generally do a good job on pay equity. "The bill before the House treats pay discrimination as systemic," Price said.
Added House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio: "This bill does little more than dole out favors to the Democrats' trial lawyer allies with no new benefit to protect workers."
The White House has threatened to veto the bill, saying the proposal would make enforcement of current equal pay laws "more difficult and error-prone and invite a surge of litigation."
The bill now goes to the Senate, where similar legislation has been introduced.