The Equal Pay Act: The First 30 Years

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Two major acts have been passed to eliminate gender discrimination within the workplace - The Equal Pay Act (EPA) of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Pay Act was the first law to suggest that the pay of women should be equal to men when their positions are equal. The purpose of the Equal Pay Act was to secure equal pay for women when they have jobs similar to men and to seek to eliminate discrimination and the depressing effects on living standards caused by reduced wages for female workers.(1) While sources indicate that women's pay is still approximately 25 percent less than men's pay, the Equal Pay Act is still considered one of the best attempts to help close the gap.(2,3,4,5) The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a broader piece of legislation in that it was passed to eliminate job discrimination in areas such as hiring, job assignments, and promotions. Since the focus of this paper is on compensation discrimination, the Equal Pay Act will be our primary focus. However, since the Civil Rights Act can also have an impact on compensation decisions in the workplace, a brief overview of both acts will be presented below.

The Equal Pay Act, enacted as Section 6(d) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, provides that no employer having employees subject to the minimum wage provisions of the Act shall, with certain exceptions prescribed in the Act, discriminate between employees in any establishment in which they are employed on the basis of sex by paying wages to employees in the establishment at a lesser rate than that paid to employees of the opposite sex in such establishment for equal work on jobs requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility for their performance, and performed under similar working conditions.(6)

The Equal Pay Act does not make it easy for women to prove they have been discriminated against regarding wages paid. For instance, in order to prove discrimination, a female has to prove in court that she is receiving unequal pay for work that is substantially equal and that the basis of this differential is their gender.(7) The problem becomes one of defining what is substantially equal. Under the Equal Pay Acids definition of equal work, equal work is defined as jobs requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility, performed under similar working conditions. Equal skill, according to the Equal Pay Act, is defined as experience, training, education, and the overall ability required of the employee. Equal effort is defined as the amount of mental and physical exertion demanded. Responsibility under the act is the amount of accountability over performance or the consequences of making mistakes. Working conditions involve environmental factors as well as the hazards of the workplace and the severity of injury that might be present.(8)

Another important act was passed a year after the Equal Pay Act. As previously mentioned, the focus of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was broader in that it attempted to prohibit discrimination in several areas. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits workplace discrimination with regard to hiring, firing, compensation, classification, promotion, and other employment decisions on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion and gender.(9) The key words for our purposes are discrimination, compensation, and gender. The issue of proof under the Civil Rights Act became one of defining discrimination. While the Civil Rights Act appears to be similar to the Equal Pay Act, it may not always be the best basis for women to act upon in a discrimination case. Besides determining what is equal, there are other differences between these laws both with regard to their coverage (e.g., what is defined as discrimination) and how to define a work behavior as being discriminatory whether it's regarding pay decisions, hiring, promotion, etc. For instance, an employer is not guilty of discrimination under the Civil Rights Act if decisions are based on the concept of bona fide occupational qualifications. …