The 50th Anniversary of the Equal Pay Act

June 10, 2013

This post is authored by Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division Jocelyn Samuels.

Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act—a law aimed at ending what President Kennedy called the “unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job.”

Much has changed in 50 years. Women now work in all parts of the workforce, including at the highest levels of senior leadership, elite law enforcement units, and corporate board rooms.

But we still have more to do before women are fully equal in the workplace. Among other things, the fight for equal pay must continue.

Women still earn 23 percent less than men do on average. The disparity is even greater for African American women and Latinas. Yet women today are the primary breadwinners in a record 40 percent of households with children, up from just 11 percent of households 50 years ago. When these women bring home less money than they are owed for the jobs that they do, they have less money to meet the needs of their families and far less in savings for retirement over a lifetime of work.

President Obama has repeatedly called for renewed efforts to ensure equal pay for equal work. The first bill he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which restores to women critical tools for taking action against pay discrimination. He has called on Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to strengthen women’s ability to challenge unfair pay at work, and created an intergovernmental task force to focus on ending unequal pay.

The cases brought by the Civil Rights Division demonstrate that this issue continues to be a priority for the Administration. These cases enable women to secure fair wages and promotions and open up high paying jobs in areas like law enforcement that have been traditionally held by men.

Some cases address exactly what the Equal Pay Act was supposed to stop—employers paying men and women differently for the same work. Last year, the division and our partners at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reached a settlement with two Texas state agencies to resolve allegations that three female employees were paid significantly less than their male counterparts even though their job duties were the same.

In other cases, we see unfair limitations on women’s opportunities to obtain jobs of their choice. For example, the division sued a jail to challenge what it alleged to be a sex-segregated job assignment system that deprived many female deputies of job assignments or shifts they had earned based on their seniority, as well as opportunities to bid on overtime postings. The division reached an agreement in March of this year to prevent future sex discrimination at the jail and to secure monetary relief for the deputies.

The division also just settled a case involving the physical test used to select entry-level police officers in Corpus Christi, Texas. The division alleged that the test screened out many more women than men, but was not adequately related to the skills that were necessary to do the job.

And just this year, the division has brought or settled additional employment lawsuits involving sex discrimination and retaliation, sexual harassment, and a corrections officer who was unlawfully forced to take a leave of absence during her pregnancy.

Though we are expanding our efforts to combat discrimination, the division’s docket makes clear that more must be done to ensure true equality in the workplace. Fifty years after the Equal Pay Act was enacted, too many women are still denied a fair shot at earning equal pay for doing equal work or at securing the jobs for which their interests and talents equip them. Ensuring equality of opportunity is a matter of simple fairness and is the promise of our anti-discrimination laws; the health of our nation’s economy also depends on our commitment to expand equal access to employment opportunities to everyone.

As President Obama recently said, “Wage inequality undermines the promise of fairness and opportunity upon which our country was founded. … Our journey will not be complete until our mothers, our wives, our sisters, and our daughters are treated equally in the workplace and always see an honest day’s work rewarded with honest wages.”

Let us honor today’s important milestone it by recommitting ourselves to completing that journey – and by redoubling our efforts in the Department and across the nation to ensuring equal economic opportunity for every employee who seeks to attain it.

The Department of Justice is a member of the National Equal Pay Task Force established by President Obama in 2010. Read more about the Task Force and the Administration’s work to ensure equal pay at http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/equal-pay, and on the Division’s website at http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/emp/.