Eight years ago today, landmark legislation was enacted in the name of women’s equality activist Lilly Ledbetter to advance equal pay.
Today’s anniversary is a reminder that while we’ve made strides to end pay inequality, the persistence of the gender and racial wage gap means we’ve got much more work to do. According to the National Women’s Law Center, female workers are still typically paid just 79 cents for every dollar paid to male workers. The disparity is even worse for many women of color, with African-American and Latina women being paid only 60 and 55 cents, respectively, for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. This is why Equal Pay Day will be “celebrated” this April, along with sister Equal Pay Days later in the year to recognize women workers of color – these days symbolize how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year.
When President Obama signed the first piece of legislation of his administration, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, this law not only lifted the time restriction for filing a claim under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, but recognized numerous practices as discriminatory – think career ladder or other promotion denials, tenure denials, and failure to respond to requests for raise – all of which had an effect on achieving pay parity.
Essentially, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act removed some of the obstacles women faced when trying to advocate for themselves to achieve equal pay.
While the act recognized the reality of wage discrimination, its enactment was especially critical forvictims of domestic and workplace violence. Consider this: discriminatory practices by employers in terms of wages, raises, and promotions negatively impact workers and their wages, but for a survivor, the financial insecurity caused by the pay gap and the low wages it perpetuates means it’s all the more difficult to escape a violent situation at home or at work. If a woman relies on her partner’s income to bolster her economic stability or is barely making ends meet in a low-wage job, she has little to no resources to change her living or work circumstances.
This makes workers in low-wage industries especially vulnerable to sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking and trafficking. Their workplaces—retail, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, clinics, private residences and farms—often make them vulnerable to perpetrators, while their economic precariousness makes them less likely to report incidents or seek help. Exacerbating the challenges these workers face, many of them earn less than the national average wage, endure unsafe and exploitative working conditions, and may have uncertain immigration status. Barriers such as immigration status, skill level, education and language ability may prevent them from reporting harassment or abuse, on the job or at home, and bringing perpetrators to justice.
While we need to raise the minimum wage to a livable wage, robust laws and policies to end discrimination and harassment in the workplace, and stronger health and safety regulations to improve working conditions, workplaces also have an important role to play to create fair, safe and healthful work environments. All employers, but especially those with low-wage workforces, should take steps, such as paying fair wages to all of their employees without regard to gender, and providing flexible leave policies and other resources that can help workers experiencing violence, to ensure their workers are financially secure and have the ability to escape dangerous situations.
We hope on the anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, employers take note of the importance of fair pay and fair treatment of all workers – men and women. It’s not only the right thing to do; it can save women from violence, and could even save lives.
If you’re looking to learn more about workplace safety and equity, head over to our website for resources.
Linda A. Seabrook is General Counsel for the anti-violence organization Futures Without Violence, where she leads Workplaces Respond to Domestic & Sexual Violence, a project funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women that works with employers, workers, and advocates to develop and implement workplace policies that prevent and respond to domestic and sexual violence and stalking impacting the workplace. The opinions, findings, conclusions and recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women. For more information on creating safer and more equitable workplaces, visit www.workplacesrespond.org.