Asking someone at a party how much they make in a year might get you a weird look. Asking someone about their salary at work might get you fired. Seem unfair? Don’t bother complaining: Washington just once again reaffirmed the boss’s inalienable right to punish workers for talking about whether they’re being treated fairly.
In a narrow vote this week, the Senate politely smothered the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have protected workers’ rights to compare and discuss their wages at work. Aimed at dismantling workplace “pay secrecy” policies, the legislation built on the 2009 Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which strengthens safeguards for women and other protected groups against wage discrimination. Both measures aim to fill gaps in the enforcement of longstanding civil rights laws, which, half a century on, are still failing to combat the most insidious forms of discrimination—the subtle labor violations that grease the gears of economic inequality. Wage discrimination has persisted in large part because workers are routinely discouraged or outright banned from discussing compensation levels with coworkers.
The Paycheck Fairness Act would have shielded workers from retaliation if they discuss their salaries with coworkers. Employers would have had to “prove that pay disparities exist for legitimate, job-related reasons,” according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. In addition, the bill would have closed disparities in the legal remedies available for violations of the Equal Pay Act, so workers could claim the same kinds of damages provided under other wage discrimination laws. And overall, workers would have had an easier time seeking compensation in federal court, rather than the bureaucracy of the National Labor Relations Board, which tends to yield weaker penalties.
The bill would also have directed the Labor Department and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to proactively gather data and investigate wage discrimination on a broader scale.
To partially offset the Senate defeat, President Obama signed two executive orders that placed similar mandates on federal contractors, but while that would cover a substantial chunk of the workforce, many millions of workers may remain effectively gagged at work.
Yet making pay fair is not just a matter of correcting payrolls. Despite all the handwringing on Capitol Hill around the oft-cited seventy-seven-cents-to-a-dollar figure, the restrictions of speech in the workplace attest to a more systemic power imbalance.
According to a 2003 study, “Over one-third of private sector employers…recently surveyed admitted to having specific rules prohibiting employees from discussing their pay with coworkers. In contrast, only about 1 in 14 employers have actively adopted a ‘pay openness’ policy,” which explicitly protects workplace discussion of wages. A 2011 survey estimated that 50 percent of workers are subject to some kind of restriction on discussing their pay with coworkers—slightly more women than men, with the largest concentration among private sector workers (about 60 percent, compared to less than 20 percent of public workers). The gaps vary along demographic lines: women workers, single parents and married childless women tend to face higher rates of these secrecy controls than do married mothers. And although civil servants generally had far lower rates of pay secrecy, the practice was more prevalent among women in the public sector.