By CHAD ABSHIRE
Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked a Democratic bill calling for equal pay in the workplace.
However, President Barack Obama and his congressional allies aren’t finished appealing to women on the main concern for voters: the cash in their wallets on the heels of recession.
As expected, the pay equity bill failed along party lines, 52-47, short of the required 60-vote threshold. But for majority Democrats, passage wasn’t the only point. The debate itself was aimed at putting Republicans on the defensive on yet another women’s issue, this one overtly economic after a government report showing slower-than-expected job growth.
Unlike past taunts over access to contraception and abortion, Republicans this time didn’t take the bait.
In Fort Worth, Texas, presumptive Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney focused instead on unemployment among Hispanics.
“Of course Gov. Romney supports pay equity for women,” said Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg. “In order to have pay equity, women need to have jobs, and they have been getting crushed in this anemic Obama economy.”
Both senators from West Virginia supported the Paycheck Fairness Act, a measured that aimed to strengthen the Fair Labor Standards Act’s protections against pay inequities based on gender.
“People should earn the same pay for the same work. Period,” Sen. Joe Manchin said. “It shouldn’t matter whether you’re a woman or a man – you should be treated fairly no matter what. The fact that working women in West Virginia are earning 70 cents to every dollar a man makes just defies commonsense. Too many families are working too hard to make ends meet, especially in families where women are the breadwinners.”
According to the Census Bureau, women in West Virginia earn on average about 70 cents for every dollar paid to men, meaning that, on an annual basis, the median yearly gap between full-time working men and women is $12,475.
“Right now West Virginia women earn 70 cents for every dollar paid to men – that’s absolutely unacceptable,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller. “By short changing women, some employers are also short-changing families that could use a full salary to buy groceries or help their children get medical care. It’s a family issue, and we need to treat it that way.
“As we approach the anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, we need to close loopholes that still allow discrimination to exist. I will keep fighting to pass this important bill.”
The Equal Pay Act was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy on June 10, 1963. That law prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex in the payment of wages and benefits when men and women perform similar work.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., would have updated that law, requiring employers to prove that differences in pay are based on qualifications, education and other “bona fides” not related to gender. It also would have prohibited employers from retaliating against employees who asked about, discussed or disclosed wages in response to a complaint or investigation. And it would have made employers who violated sex discrimination laws liable for compensatory or punitive damages. Under the bill, the federal government would have been exempt from punitive damages.
According to an analysis of Census Bureau data, women in West Virginia earn less than men across all occupations and educational levels. Women’s median earnings are less than men’s median earnings in 264 out of 265 major occupation categories. Census data also shows women’s pay lags men’s in the following occupations in West Virginia:
According to the Joint Economic Committee and Census Bureau, 34 percent of married employed mothers in West Virginia are their families’ primary wage earners. There are 213,517 children in West Virginia households where the mothers contribute to the family income.
“This pay disparity not only affects families’ budgets, but it also penalizes them by undermining their retirement security through reduced Social Security and pension benefits. In West Virginia, women make up 46 percent of the state workforce,” a release from Rockefeller’s office stated.
Proponents of the bill said it was the next step after the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which Obama signed into law in 2009. That law effectively overturned a Supreme Court decision that had strictly limited workers’ ability to file lawsuits over pay inequity. Ledbetter said she didn’t become aware of her own pay discrepancy until she neared the end of her 1979-1988 career at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala.
Near the end of her career, she received an anonymous tip that she was earning less than her male colleagues. She filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A jury initially awarded her more than $3 million in back pay and punitive damages, a sum that a judge later reduced to $300,000.
Ledbetter herself attended the vote and scolded Republicans for their filibuster.
“Do not let these Republicans keep us from getting paycheck fairness,” she told reporters, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at her side and a letter from her to Romney posted online by the Obama campaign.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell spoke instead on the looming fight over student loan interest rates. Asked if he was concerned about alienating women with the GOP filibuster, the Kentucky Republican said the bill opened the door to more lawsuits against employers.
“We don’t think America suffers from a lack of litigation,” McConnell said. “We have a jobless problem. We have a debt problem. We have a deficit problem. We got a lot of problems. Not enough lawsuits is not one of them.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.