This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The Act prohibits discrimination in the payment of wages and salary based on gender. In a formal statement, President Kennedy assured Americans that the law was necessary to “bring structure basic to democracy,” providing care and protection for the family unit.

At the time, women, working mainly as secretaries and typists, earned only 60% of the average wage for men. That’s about 59 to 64 cents for ever dollar brought home by male workers. Even though 1 in 3 workers were women at the time, women made less than two-thirds the pay rate of men.

By signing the law, President Kennedy hoped to turn the tide on gender stereotypes in the workplace and provide women with the basic right to earn just as much as men for jobs requiring the same skill and effort. Today, wage disparity still exists. However, the Equal Pay Act has helped narrow the gap between men’s and women’s pay and has helped hold employers accountable to an equal pay standard.

1.  To make a successful Equal Pay Act claim, an employee must prove at least three important tenets concerning compensation.

Though the impetus for the EPA was to assist women employees with achieving equal pay, the law applies to all employees. A successful claim should prove:

  • The claimant’s pay is unequal to that of an employee of the opposite sex.
  • The work conducted is equal.
  • The work is conducted under the same conditions.

Courts will analyze the equality of work by considering actual duties performed rather than job descriptions and titles. For purposes of the EPA, equal jobs require equal levels of skill, effort and responsibility.

Also, work must be conducted under the same conditions. This means employees must work in the same physical conditions and surroundings such as temperature, fumes or ventilation or face the same types of hazards.

2.  The work need not be identical for a successful EPA claim.

Courts have ruled that proving a primae facie case for unequal pay under the EPA does not require plaintiffs to show that jobs are identical. Instead, it is enough that jobs held by men and women are comparable or substantially alike. This prevents an employer from asserting that a claim is invalid because the positions held have formal differences when, in fact, the actual work done is the same.

3.  Under the Equal Pay Act, and employer is entitled to four main defenses.

Once an employee establishes a primae facie case for unequal pay, the burden of proving otherwise shifts to the employer. The employer may assert one or more affirmative defenses to justify wage disparity:

  • seniority systems
  • merit systems
  • a system which merits compensations based on quantity or quality of production
  • a differential based on any other factor other than sex

These defenses basically require an employer to show there is a legitimate and reasonable basis for any wage disparities between two workers. For instance, if an employer is able to show that a pay differential is based on seniority levels or extra work done, a claim of unequal pay could be defeated according to the EPA

4.  The Equal Pay Act is enforced by the EEOC.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides guidance for claims brought under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination Act, but it also handles claims under the EPA as well.

However, it is not necessary to first file a claim with the EEOC in order to bring suit under the EPA. An employee may begin the process of asserting an EPA claim simply by filing a petition in the appropriate court. The statute of limitations for EPA claims is two years from the first date of discrimination, or three years if the discrimination is willful or intentional.

5.  It is possible to bring suit under both the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Equal Pay Act is not the only form of legislation to address wage disparities. Title VII also prohibits compensation discrimination, covering a wide variety of income types in addition to wages such as benefits, bonuses, holiday pay, salary, life insurance and even travel expenses. Generally, EPA claims raise sex discrimination issues, so the two laws are closes related.

Title VII does not require comparable work or that employee must work at the same establishment of a higher paid co-worker. However, the law does require that the company sued must have at least 15 employees. Because there are significant advantages and disadvantages to separate filings, employees often file claims under both laws to ensure that they take full advantage of the rights and remedies granted when the two are combined.

6.  The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is closely related to the Equal Pay Act.

When Lilly Ledbetter sued Goodyear for unequal pay in 1998, her case was eventually denied by the Supreme Court – not based on the merits of the case, however. The denial was due to the fact that her claim was not filed within the statute of limitations, 180 days, for Title VII claims.

President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law in 2009 to address such issues. The law amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to reset the 180 day statute of limitations with each new discriminatory paycheck. The law offers yet another advantage of filing an unequal pay claim under both the Equal Pay Act and Title VII.

7.  The Equal Pay Act has been sharply criticized.

Even though the wage gap has narrowed since the Equal Pay Act was signed 50 years ago, that progress has not been enough for those who criticize the law as a failure. Today, women are more likely than men to hold degrees of higher education, but still earn less income on average. Female employees earn an average 75 to 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, a mere 17 cents increase since around the time the EPA became law in 1964.

A Lasting Legacy

Over the years, the Equal Pay Act has provided an important avenue of justice for workers experiencing wage disparities. As legislators, advocacy groups and citizens work to fill its loopholes and gaps, new legislation is emerging to address prevailing compensation disparities across the country. The Equal Pay Act continues to be the first of many groundbreaking laws addressing the complex issues of gender inequality in workplace.