Five Years of Lilly Ledbetter and Still More Work Needs To Be Done

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.  Named after Lilly Ledbetter, who worked for a production plant for years without knowing she was getting paid less than her male counterparts, the bill protects workers against pay discrimination. The Supreme Court had previously ruled that Ms. Ledbetter had filed her case too late, as the company’s decision on her case had been made years earlier. The law now says that pay discrimination on the basis of sex, race, origin, age, religion and disability occurs whenever an employee receives a discriminatory paycheck, when a discriminatory pay decision is adopted, or when a person is affected by a pay decision or practice. It is a great first step in giving women the tools to be economically secure in today’s workplace. But it’s not enough.

At a time when both women and men face the lingering effects of the Great Recession and stagnating wages at all education levels, a crucial step to improve women’s labor market success is to ensure a full recovery from the Great Recession. While it is true that women have regained pre-recession employment levels—contrasted with men, who are still 1.5 million short—women’s comparable return to 2007 employment is largely because the industries that have taken the biggest employment hits since 2007 also have a disproportionately larger share of male workers. However, within the majority of industries, women’s job growth has trailed men’s. Additionally, these numbers fail to address the fact that the working-age population (and with it the potential labor force) is growing all the time. Accounting for the growth in the potential female labor force, women are still 3.5 million jobs in the hole.

In this economy, it is clear that women need more jobs (as do men), but they also need pay equality. Women who work full time, year round still only earn 77 percent of what men earn, a pay gap that accumulates over time. For a 40-year working career, the average woman loses $431,000—no small amount. And, women with a college degree are no exception. Over their lifetime, women with at least a bachelor’s degree earn approximately $713,000 less than similarly educated men over their lifetime. Additionally, over half of women workers make poverty-level wages over half of the poverty-level wage workers are women (poverty-level wage workers are defined as workers who earn wage below what a full-time, full-year worker needs to give a family of four enough income to reach the poverty threshold). Fully, 32.0 percent of workers in 2011 earn poverty-level wages.

There are a variety of policy levers Congress and the president can employ to put women’s work and wages on an equal playing field with their male counterparts. For example, women make up 55% of the 28.7 million people who would be affected by an increase of the minimum wage to $10.10. Likewise, women would gain substantially with a fix to the tipped minimum wage, increasing it from the $2.13 an hour to 70 percent of the overall minimum. Additionally, a recent paper by our colleague, Heidi Shierholz documents the rapid expected growth in in-home occupations—many occupations that are excluded from the protections of federal labor and employment laws and standards and are very low paying compared to other occupations. Reforms to regulate the working conditions and improve job quality for in-home workers, 90 percent of whom are female, would help both to raise their wages and provide more job security

So, yes, we applaud the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, but, at the same time, we look forward to a policy agenda which seriously tackles the class and gender inequities that prevent working women from earning a fair and livable wage.