Receiving adequate compensation is perhaps the most important aspect of employment in today’s workplace. When discrimination enters the picture, wages become an even larger area of sensitivity for employees, and unfair outcomes can be especially damaging. This is why employment discrimination laws are in place to protect workers from wage discrimination and to ensure that all workers are compensated fairly for the work they do.
Wage discrimination can describe a number of offenses based on wage discrepancies. Most often the disparities in wages occur among traditionally discriminated groups such as women and minorities. However, illegal wage disparities can occur for any group protected by federal or state employment discrimination laws.
Title VII and Wage Discrimination
Title VII protects workers from a number of discriminatory acts including pay differences based on membership in a particular class of society. Specifically the act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, age, sex, religion or disability.
In addition, Title VII covers all employment processes. This means workers are protected from discrimination in hiring, firing, promotion, termination, benefits, salary and wages. When an employer decides to discriminate against an employee by lowering wages because he or she belongs to any of the groups referred to in Title VII, the law kicks in to trigger liability.
The Equal Pay Act
One particular area where wage discrimination has historical recurrence is between male and female workers. Often referred to as the wage gap, wage disparities between men and women have been skewed towards male workers since the beginning of the industrial age and become more apparent after World War II when women began entering the workforce in large numbers.
Since those times, the wage gap continues to plague the American workforce, although it has shown some improvement over the last decade. Men still earn more than women on average. The Equal Pay Act (EPA) was designed to ensure that such wage disparities can be addressed in the courts. It requires that employers reward men and women equal pay for equal work.
Understanding the Equal Pay Act
Unlike Title VII, the Equal Pay Act specifically addresses the wage gap between men and women. While Title VII treats wage disparities between men and women as a form of sex discrimination, the Equal Pay Act strictly prohibits wage differentials when men and women are in positions that are substantially equal.
Substantially equal position does not mean that the jobs need be identical to trigger EPA provisions; they need only be equal in content. This means, regardless of job titles and other peripheral characteristics, when men and women are contributing equal work to a company, they must be paid equally. This covers all forms of pay including overtime, stock options, benefits and more.
How Can I Prove Wage Discrimination?
Wage discrimination can be a violation of a number of laws, mainly the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Right Act. An employee can file a charge with the EEOC for violations of Title VII or may go directly to court for a claim under the Equal Pay Act. A third option is to pursue an employer under both the Equal Pay Act and Title VII.
Under the Equal Pay Act, it is necessary to prove that the position held by an complainant is substantially equal to a counterpart of the opposite sex. This means proving that the positions require equivalent skill, effort and responsibility. It also means showing that work is performed under similar working conditions in the same establishment.
Under Title VII, it is not necessary to show that wage discrimination is on the basis of substantially equal work. Rather, since Title VII prohibits discrimination in compensation, an employer can be liable even if there is no member of the opposite sex in a substantially equal position being paid more than the complaining employee.
Under a Title VII wage discrimination claim, an employee must first prove: 1) membership in a protected group and that he or she was qualified for the position worked in; 2) an employer is practicing wage differentials based on the employee’s membership in the protected group and this has given rise to an inference of discrimination.
The EEOC suggests that its investigators evaluate compensation discrimination based on the wages and salaries of those similarly situated to the employee charging wage discrimination. Once these similarly situated individuals are identified, the investigator is encouraged to determine whether compensation differences are due to discrimination.
Wage discrimination claims can also arise under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) for workers over 40 years of age experiencing illegal wage differentials or under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for workers with a legally recognized disability who experience wage differentials as a form of disability discrimination.
What Happens in a Wage Discrimination Case?
Once the employee sets forth evidence proving wage discrimination, doing so raises a presumption that discrimination exists. Courts will then give the employer an opportunity to show that there is some reason other than discrimination for the differences in pay.
This means an employer will need to raise affirmative defenses to the allegations of wage discrimination. Affirmative defenses for wage differentials might be that the differences are based on a seniority or merit system or that they are based on the quantity or quality of production. According to the Bennet Amendment to Title VII, these affirmative defenses apply to claims under both Title VII and the EPA.
Using the EPA or Other Federal Laws to Fight Wage Discrimination
With the help of a competent and experienced employment law attorney, employees can fight wage discrimination using the EPA and other federal laws put in place to ensure that wage differences do not persist in America’s workforce. This means that employees do not have to continue to experience discrimination in compensation based on sex or any other protected characteristic.
If you think you are experiencing a difference in your wages or salary based on your sex or membership in a protected group, contact Shegerian & Associates today. We’re here to help.