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A Platform for Progress: Building a Better Future for Women and Their Families: Supporting Women in the Workplace

Reports & Toolkits

Ensuring Equal Pay

Women working full time today earn, on average, only 77 cents for every dollar paid to men. The numbers are even worse for women of color – an African-American woman earns only 63 cents and a Latina only 52 cents for each dollar earned by a white male. Wage gaps persist across a wide spectrum of occupations, through every level of education, and in every state of the country. But current federal laws are wholly inadequate to close these gaps.

  • Enable Women to Enforce Their Right to Equal Pay. In 2007, the Supreme Court made it virtually impossible for women and others subject to pay discrimination to go to court to vindicate their rights, holding that any challenges to pay discrimination must be filed within 180 days of an employee’s first discriminatory paycheck or be forever barred. In addition, courts over time have severely limited women’s rights under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, allowing employers to escape liability for paying men more than women doing equal work. To address these restrictions, Congress must pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to restore the long-standing and widely accepted rule that women may challenge each discriminatory paycheck they receive. Congress must also enact the Paycheck Fairness Act to close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act, improve the remedies and procedures available under the law, and enhance mechanisms for federal agencies to monitor and enforce equal pay requirements. Further, because jobs in female-dominated fields continue to pay significantly less than those in similar male-dominated fields – maids and housecleaners, for example, 87% of whom are female, make about $3,000 less each year than janitors and building cleaners, who are 72% male – Congress must pass the Fair Pay Act, which would require employers to pay employees in female-dominated jobs at the same rate as employees in equivalent male-dominated jobs.
  • Require Information Collection to Identify Wage Discrimination. The federal government has never implemented an effective mechanism to identify sex-based wage differentials in the workforce. In fact, in 2006, the Department of Labor abolished the Equal Opportunity Survey, a tool designed over the course of decades to enable federal contractors to evaluate their pay scales and to improve federal enforcement capabilities. The Administration should reinstate and effectively use the Equal Opportunity Survey and should require all employers subject to the anti-discrimination laws to regularly evaluate and report, by gender, race, ethnicity and other categories, the wages they pay to their employees. The Department of Labor should also reissue guidelines for compensation discrimination investigations that were revoked by the Bush Administration to make clear that important pay data can be used in compliance investigations.

Restoring Broad Protections Against All Forms of Sex Discrimination in the Workplace

Women continue to face pervasive limitations on their opportunities at work. In addition to wage discrimination, women are subjected to sexual harassment and retaliation, and continue to be denied jobs and promotions based on their sex. Pregnancy discrimination complaints are on the rise, and women who are parents often face damaging stereotypes about their level of commitment to the workplace. These problems have been deeply exacerbated by a series of damaging Supreme Court decisions that undercut the fabric of legal protections that women, minorities, individuals with disabilities, and individuals subject to age discrimination have relied upon for decades. Congress must remedy these severe limitations on rights against discrimination in the workplace.

  • Overturn Supreme Court Decisions That Have Undermined Anti-Discrimination Laws. The Civil Rights Act of 2008 provides a detailed roadmap for remedying the serious damage done by the Supreme Court to the ability of women and others to enforce their civil rights. The Act would, for example, make clear that employers cannot deprive their employees of access to courts to resolve their discrimination claims; restore the ability to obtain legal counsel by making clear that lawyers may receive attorney’s fees for favorable settlements; and provide reasonable remedies to undocumented workers who are subject to discrimination. Congress should pass the Act without delay.
  • Ensure that Women Can Obtain the Same Remedies for Sex Discrimination as Those Subject to Discrimination Based on Race and National Origin. Women have been treated as second-class citizens in the remedies available to them for sex discrimination in the workplace. Although Congress in 1991 authorized the award of compensatory and punitive damages under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex and religion – it placed arbitrary and draconian limits on the amounts of those awards, thereby depriving employees of necessary relief and drastically limiting the deterrence value of the remedies. Women subject to sex discrimination on the job bear the brunt of these restrictions, since damages are available without arbitrary limit under other federal laws that bar race and national origin discrimination. Congress must enact the Equal Remedies Act to ensure that those subject to sex discrimination, as well as those who are treated inequitably on the basis of religion or disability, can obtain the full compensatory and punitive remedies that are necessary to provide appropriate redress.
  • Expand Access for Women to Jobs and Economic Opportunities In Which They Are Under-Represented. Women continue to confront a glass ceiling that limits their access to the top positions in the workforce and their economic opportunities. Women, for example, comprise less than 2.5% of chief executives of Fortune 500 companies. Women-owned small businesses receive only about 3% of the billions of dollars in federal contracts that are awarded every year. And far too many occupations in the United States remain dominated by one gender, with those dominated by men typically providing better wages and benefits. The Administration should take steps to open jobs and opportunities from which women have previously been excluded, including by issuing strong regulations, that do not impose unnecessary barriers, to implement the Women’s Procurement Program for women-owned businesses, and by providing guidance on effective means for employers to eliminate barriers that block women’s access to top-level jobs and employment in fields traditionally dominated by men.
  • Expand Discrimination Protections in the Workplace. Currently, federal law fails to adequately protect women – or men – from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Congress should promptly fill in these gaps in the law, by making explicit that employers may not discriminate against employees on either basis. As a good first step, Congress should pass an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Ending Discrimination Against Women in the Military

Current policies of the Department of Defense (DoD) explicitly authorize discrimination against women in military assignments and are inadequate to protect women from discrimination that is prohibited, especially in the case of sexual harassment and assault. During and after the Gulf Conflict of the early 1990’s, and based on the outstanding performance of women in that conflict, both Congress and a new Administration re-assessed military laws and policies to open tens of thousands of military positions – including combat positions – to women and improve DoD policies to combat sexual harassment and assault. A similar re-assessment should take place now in light of women’s performance in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and specific changes should be made as set forth below.

  • Eliminate Prohibitions on Women’s Service. DoD should eliminate its remaining policy prohibitions on women’s service in certain military assignments and should establish fair, gender-neutral, performance-based standards for all military positions in order to enable any individual who can meet the standards to be eligible for the assignment.
  • Improve Military Procedures for Challenging Discrimination. DoD and Congress should provide members of the military with a process for challenging discrimination that is similar to the process provided to civilian DoD employees, including the right to an independent investigation and hearing, a written record, and an independent finder of fact and decision maker; standardized procedures, definitions, and recommended penalties for perpetrators; ability to obtain compensatory damages; better protection against retaliation; and appropriate judicial review. Moreover, DoD must ensure that individuals at the highest ranks of the military take seriously the need to enforce policies against sexual harassment and prosecute instances of sexual assault, including by holding commanding officers consistently accountable for their failure to do so.
  • Revitalize DACOWITS. The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS), which was created by Secretary of Defense George Marshall in 1951 and has been a force for the expansion of women’s roles in the military for over 50 years, has had its authority and responsibilities downgraded by the Bush Administration. It must be restored to a meaningful advisory body with the authority to choose its issues and independently advise the Secretary on them.
  • Repeal Discriminatory Policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The Administration should support, and Congress should pass, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which repeals the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and prohibits sexual orientation from limiting individuals’ service or assignments in the military.

Ensuring Full Enforcement of the Anti-Discrimination Laws

Federal enforcement agencies – including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice – have been under-funded and have failed to take the strong action necessary to ensure enforcement of the federal laws barring sex and other forms of discrimination in employment. These agencies must take proactive steps to enforce the laws, including by initiating systemic investigations where appropriate, and the President and Congress should fully fund their enforcement efforts.

Guaranteeing A Living Wage

Women who work should be able to achieve economic self-sufficiency. However, women are nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers, and the current minimum wage is insufficient to keep women with children out of poverty.

  • Raise the Minimum Wage. Even with Congress’ recently passed minimum wage hike – to $7.25 an hour in July 2009 – the salary of a full-time year-round minimum wage worker is still more than $3,000 below the current federal poverty level for a mother with two children. Congress should pass additional increases in the minimum wage that bring the minimum back to its historical level of 50% of non-supervisory wages and then index the wage to the consumer price index.
  • Protect Overtime Pay. Among workers who earn overtime pay, overtime wages account for roughly 25% of total earnings. But in 2007, the Supreme Court upheld a Department of Labor regulation that excludes workers who provide in-home care for elderly or disabled people from federal wage and overtime protections. Home health care workers, the vast majority of whom are women, perform stressful, physically demanding jobs, but are among the lowest paid individuals in the service industry. The Department of Labor should eliminate this regulation to ensure that home health care workers, who provide essential services to the nation’s elderly and disabled, are not singled out for unfair treatment and to provide labor protections to them. Moreover, because of a regulatory change made by the Department of Labor in 2004, millions of women – with those clustered in traditionally female-dominated jobs like retail, service, and sales positions likely to have been particularly hard-hit – may be losing out on overtime pay to which they were previously entitled. The Department should evaluate the impact of this regulatory change, and make any modifications necessary to ensure that workers receive the overtime pay they deserve.

Helping Women Meet Their Work and Family Responsibilities

Women are often faced with challenges in meeting their work and family responsibilities. The Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, was a strong first step in ensuring that workers do not have to sacrifice their jobs when they need to take leave to deal with the birth or adoption of a child or with their own serious health condition or that of a close family member. However, 40% of workers – those whose employers have fewer than 50 employees – are still unprotected by the Act, and all guaranteed leave under the Act is unpaid. Seventy-eight percent of workers who have been unable to take leave reported that the reason is their inability to afford the loss of wages.

  • Expand the Family and Medical Leave Act. Congress should expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to, at a minimum, cover employers with 25 or more employees; allow leave for additional purposes, such as school-related events; and ensure that employees are not excessively burdened in claiming their right to leave. The Department of Labor should reject provisions of currently proposed regulations that contravene this standard.
  • Provide Paid Leave Days. Congress should enact provisions to enable employees to obtain paid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Department of Labor should issue guidance explaining the means by which states and employers can immediately accomplish that goal. As a first step, Congress should pass the Healthy Families Act, which requires that employers with 15 or more employees provide a minimum of seven paid sick days a year to cover the health conditions of employees and/or their family members. Further, the President should issue an Executive Order instructing federal contractors to provide paid sick leave for their employees.
  • Establish Parity for Part-Time Workers. More than two-thirds of part-time workers in the United States are women. But, part-time workers lag behind their full-time counterparts in salary and in access to benefits. For example, only about a third as many part-time as full-time workers have access to paid sick leave or are eligible to participate in an employer’s retirement plan. To address these problems, Congress should ensure that part-time workers are given parity with their full-time colleagues. Part-time workers who reach a minimum threshold of hours worked should, for example, be paid proportional wages to those paid to full-time employees, and have proportional access to all benefits, including leave and employer contributions to health and pension coverage. Part-time workers who leave a job should also be eligible to receive, on a proportional basis, the same benefits that are provided to unemployed full-time workers, such as unemployment insurance. (For additional recommendations with regard to work supports, see the Economic Security section of this Platform.)

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