Make Equal Pay for Women the Law

By Brad Hoylman and Deborah Glick, published Wednesday, September 9, 2015 by the Albany Times Union

On the evening of March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in Manhattan's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Locked inside, many workers – most of them women – leapt eight stories to their deaths.

The fire is a tragedy seared into labor history. The shock induced New York to establish the country's first worker protections; and it inspired Francis Perkins – our nation's first female Secretary of Labor – to commit herself to the cause of America's workers.

On the heels of Labor Day, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire is a compelling reminder of how far we've come on workers' rights.

For more than a century the labor community has fought for and won a 40-hour work week, overtime pay, basic job protections, paid maternity leave and – in some states – a $15 minimum wage.

Yet, while we celebrate these achievements, many Americans have yet to enjoy the full benefits of their labor: women. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to encourage businesses in New York to identify discriminatory wage policies and correct this inequality.

In 2013, women who worked full-time made just 78 cents for every dollar made by their male counterparts. Put another way, women would need to work an extra 60 days just to match men's yearly salary.

This wage gap – the difference between the average wages of male and female employees holding similar positions – remains consistent even when hours, education, race and age are taken into account.

Though the gap has narrowed in recent decades, over the last 10 years progress has stagnated, despite women actually surpassing men in the number of undergraduate and graduate degrees conferred.

The gap is even more pronounced for women of color.

African-American and Hispanic women, who constitute a disproportionate number of the working poor, earn just 64 and 55 cents to every dollar earned by white men in a similar position, respectively.

By cheating nearly half of workers solely on the basis of gender, what we lose, in the words of Lilly Ledbetter, "can't be measured in dollars." Wage discrimination sends a message to all women that they are worth less than men, and businesses can benefit from this immoral practice.

Moreover, even when women feel they've been discriminated against, a dangerous combination of workplace politics and social norms can make it uncomfortable to speak honestly about wages. The resulting lack of transparency means it is often difficult to detect – let alone prevent – pay inequality.

It is time for the Empire State to lead the way and make equal pay for equal work the law of the land in New York.

On Tuesday, outside the former Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village, we announced the introduction of legislation to combat wage discrimination. Our bill would require businesses that contract with New York State to publicly report their wage gap based on race, gender and ethnicity. This is patterned after the federal requirement affecting federal contractors.

Such disclosure is critical to ensure fair pay between men and women. It will incentivize companies that do business with New York to take steps to close their wage gap. Moreover, there is evidence that wage transparency leads to higher rates of worker productivity and retention.

Some argue the wage gap will eventually close on its own, pointing to statistics showing that for young women, the pay gap is only 93 cents for every dollar a man is paid. Indeed, women have come a long way since making 60 cents for every dollar in 1980. But discriminatory practices are bad for businesses and bad for workers.

A recent study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research concluded that, based on current wage growth, the gap will not close until 2058.

With women now functioning as breadwinners for nearly 40 percent of households nationwide, we can't afford to wait 40 years; we need to act now.

Promoting equality of economic opportunity for women and their families must be a priority for New York. Lawmakers in Albany should set an example for the rest of the nation and pass wage gap disclosure legislation this year.