Thursday, February 7, 2019

Fair pay law for women early test for Democratic Congress -- Feb. 7, 2019 column


The most memorable visual from the State of the Union was the most joyous.

We’re used to Republican members of Congress popping up from their chairs and dutifully applauding President Donald Trump – and to Democrats, with rare exceptions, sitting glumly.    

On Tuesday night, though, dozens of Democratic women wearing “suffragette white” to show solidarity and to honor the legacy of the suffragette movement, became a wave of celebration.

The women were largely quiescent until Trump began touting the economy.

“No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled 58 percent of the new jobs created in the last year,” he said.

The women – many of them newcomers to Congress – perked up. Smiling, they looked around, stood and applauded, pointing to themselves and each other. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi beamed.

“Don’t sit yet. You’re going to like this,” Trump said. “And exactly one century after the Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in the Congress than ever before,” he said.

At that, the women -- many of whom ran for Congress and won because of their outspoken opposition to Trump’s policies – rejoiced in their triumph with energetic fist-pumps, high fives and hugs. Their jubilation was infectious.

Now they need to harness their enthusiasm to succeed in the hyper-partisan capital. 

The Democratic House must deliver on promises to make Washington work for everybody.

It’s exciting to think the new members actually will build coalitions and pass bills that better the lives of women and families. Even Trump says he favors paid family and medical leave, although there’s nothing to show for it.  

One of the first tests for Congress is ensuring women get equal pay for their work. Finally.

Equal pay has been the law of the land since the 1960s, but the gender pay gap – the difference in median earnings of a man and a woman each working full time -- persists.

A woman in 2017 earned about 20 percent less than a man, according to the most recent Census Bureau figures. The wage gap is worse for black women and Hispanic women.

This isn’t a fluke or women working in “women’s” jobs that pay less. Men’s median weekly pay exceeds women’s in almost every occupation -- from chief executives to janitors and building cleaners, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

The Paycheck Fairness Act was first introduced more than a decade ago. It would close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and make employers more accountable for their pay practices.

It would end pay secrecy and retaliation – workplace rules that keep workers from asking about others’ wages and disclosing their own; allow workers to sue for damages from pay discrimination; strengthen penalties for equal pay violations, and update the federal role in education, research and data-collection to combat gender discrimination.  

The House first passed Paycheck Fairness in January 2009, but the bill died in the Senate. It has been reintroduced repeatedly and has always failed.  

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, and Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, reintroduced the measure Jan. 30.

In the House, every Democrat and one Republican are cosponsors. In the Senate, there are 45 cosponsors – all Democrats and Bernie Sanders, independent. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia are cosponsors.

Rep. Bobby Scott, Democrat of Virginia, is now chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, and plans to fast-track the legislation with a hearing this month and a House vote soon after. The goal is to have a bill on Trump’s desk by early April.

But passage is hardly assured. Even though more women serve in Congress than ever, they still make up only about a quarter of the total membership.

What’s needed is a thaw in the Republican-controlled Senate. Republicans oppose the bill as unnecessary, saying it burdens employers and could even harm women,  if employers are reluctant to hire them.

But surely in 2019 equal pay for women doing equal work is an issue we all can agree on.

It’s time for Congress – new members and veterans – to turn to the hard work of governing and get the job done.

  ©2019 Marsha Mercer All rights reserved.

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