Harkin continues to work on behalf of women, fairness

Women throughout the nation can be very happy that Iowans are represented by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, who has continuously and tirelessly worked to close the gender pay gap.

On Tuesday, Harkin, who leads the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), spoke on the floor of the U.S. Senate in support of the Paycheck Fairness Act. The measure is expected to come up for a vote today (Wednesday).

Below are his remarks as they were prepared for delivery:

“Mr. President, I would also like to speak today about gender inequality, about women, about family and about fairness. This is not a new issue. In 1963, Congress responded to wage disparity between men and women by passing the Equal Pay Act.  At that time, 25 million female workers earned just 60 percent of the average pay for men. Forty-seven years after the passage of that landmark law, we have made substantial progress towards eliminating this gross inequality.

“Today, almost half a century later, many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle seem to be suggesting that the Equal Pay Act was enough.  That we should consider the problem solved and move on to other issues.  But America’s women deserve better.  We have the responsibility to ask ourselves the harder questions — are we fulfilling the promise of the Equal Pay Act?  Do we need to do more?  What is true pay equality?

“I can tell you one thing – true equality does not look like this. It does not look like 77 cents on the dollar.  For every dollar that a man earns, a woman earns just 77 cents. A wage gap exists within every segment of our society, at all education levels and in all sectors of our economy.

“Women’s lower wages add up tremendously over a career:  Over the course of a 40-year career, women on average earn nearly $400,000 less than a man, and women with a college degree or more face a career wage gap of more than $700,000 when compared with men with the same education.

“And, while many factors influence a worker’s earnings — including occupation, work experience, and union status–40 percent of the wage gap cannot be explained and is likely due in large part to discrimination.

“This discrimination is unjust and unacceptable, and it is contributing to the economic crisis affecting our working families.  Bear in mind that discrimination doesn’t just impact women workers – it also undermines their families’ economic security.  In today’s economy, women represent half of all workers, and earn an increasing share of family income.

“Two-thirds of mothers are major contributors to family income.  Four out of ten mothers are the primary breadwinner for their households and another one in four are co-breadwinners.  In today’s economy, when a mother earns less than her male colleagues, her family will have to sacrifice the basic necessities — like paying bills and putting healthy food on the table.

“That was not what Congress intended when it passed the Equal Pay Act so many years ago, and it is not a result that we should accept today.  It is long past time to revisit our equal pay laws, to ensure that they are fulfilling their intended purpose, and to explore whether a more comprehensive approach is necessary in the 21st century economy.

“The first step is to strengthen the laws we have on the books today.  I am pleased that the first bill President Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, but that bill was just a down payment.  It returned the law to the way it had been for decades before an unfair and incorrect Supreme Court decision trampled on women’s rights.  The Ledbetter bill righted a wrong, but it was not enough.  We cannot declare victory until all victims of discrimination can vindicate their rights.

“That’s why we need the Paycheck Fairness Act.  I want to thank Senators Dodd and Mikulski for their leadership in bringing this bill to the floor. This important legislation will address weaknesses in our current equal pay laws that are preventing us from achieving the fundamental goal of equal pay for equal work.

“The Paycheck Fairness Act will strengthen penalties for discrimination and help give women the tools they need to identify and confront unfair treatment.  By funding education programs designed for women and girls, this legislation will support and empower women.  The Act will also increase training, research, and education to help the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission respond to wage discrimination claims more effectively.  These important reforms are a critical first step on the road to real equality, and passing this essential bill is long overdue.

“But, as important as it is, the Paycheck Fairness Act alone is not enough. If we want to address the root cause of the pay gap, we must tackle the more pervasive discrimination that occurs when we systematically undervalue the work traditionally done by women, particularly low-wage workers and women of color. We must acknowledge the fundamental truth that women are earning less than men not only because of insidious discrimination, but also because we do not value jobs we traditionally view as “women’s jobs” as highly as we value those we think of as “men’s jobs.”

“Today, millions of female-dominated jobs – for example, social workers, teachers, child care workers and nurses – are equivalent in skills, effort, responsibility and working conditions to similar jobs dominated by men.  But, the female-dominated jobs pay significantly less.  This is inexplicable and inexcusable.

“That is why in every session of Congress since 1996, I have introduced the Fair Pay Act.  My bill would require employers to provide equal pay for jobs that are equivalent in skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions.  It would also require employers to publicly disclose their job categories and their pay scales, without requiring specific information on individual employees.  If we give women information about what their male colleagues are earning, they can negotiate a better deal for themselves in the workplace.

“If we are looking for inspiration, we need only look to Lilly Ledbetter. After nearly two decades of work, Lilly learned that she had been paid significantly less than men in the company for doing the exact same job. She was a victim of discrimination and had she known it sooner, she could have tried to address the problem much sooner.  Last year, I asked her if the Fair Pay Act had been law, would it have made a difference to her wage discrimination case.  She said that with the information about pay scales that the bill requires, she would have known that she could have addressed the problem much sooner, before it caused a lifelong drop in her earnings, and before she had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to try to make things right.

“We still have work to do when it comes to ensuring equal pay for women workers. We need the Paycheck Fairness Act today to achieve that goal.  It is a simple, commonsense piece of legislation, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t take it up today and pass it right away.

“And then once we have restored the real intentions of the Equal Pay Act, we must turn our attention to the millions of women – especially low-wage workers – whose work is undervalued.  We must ensure that they receive the recognition and fair treatment they deserve by passing the Fair Pay Act.

“The fight for economic equality is not over, and it shouldn’t be over until every working woman in America receives a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.  As Chairman of the HELP Committee I plan to keep talking about fair pay and focusing on fair pay until we’ve achieved real equality for women across the country. I hope that all of my colleagues will join me in this effort.”

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A Republican turned Democrat who is now registered with no party, Lynda is the founder of Essential Estrogen. She and her husband live in eastern Iowa with their two (mostly good) children and two (mostly good) dogs. Their oldest child was turned loose on the world in 2011 and is making her home in another state. A journalist, essayist and hobby fiction writer, Lynda's work has been seen in Salon, RH Reality Check, the Atlantic, The Iowa Independent, UK Guardian as well as other online and traditional publications. She has also appeared as a guest on various television and radio news shows.

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