A federal law, the Equal Pay Act (EPA), requires employers to pay men and women equally for doing the same work -- equal pay for equal work. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963 as an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act and can be found at 29 U.S.C. § 206.
Although the Equal Pay Act protects both women and men from sex discrimination in pay rates, it was passed to help rectify the wage disparity experienced by women workers, and in practice, this law has almost always been applied to situations where women are paid less than men for doing similar jobs.
Who Is Covered
Virtually all workers are covered by the Equal Pay Act, which regulates the conduct of state, local, and federal governments and most private employers.
Making a Claim
To successfully raise a claim under the Equal Pay Act, you must show that you and an employee of the opposite sex are:
- working in the same place
- doing equal work, and
- receiving unequal pay.
However, if the employer can show that the wage disparity has a legitimate basis -- for example, that the higher earner has more seniority or more experience -- the claim will be defeated.
Determining Equal Work
Jobs do not have to be identical for courts to consider them equal. If two employees are actually doing the same work, it doesn't matter if their titles or job descriptions differ. What counts is the duties the employees actually perform. In general, courts have ruled that two jobs are equal for the purposes of the Equal Pay Act when both require equal levels of skill, effort, and responsibility and are performed under similar conditions.
There is a lot of room for interpretation here, of course, but the general rule is that small differences in the skill, effort, or responsibility required do not make two jobs unequal. The biggest problems arise where two jobs are basically the same, but one includes a few extra duties. It is perfectly legal for an employer to pay more for the extra duties, but some courts have looked askance at workplaces in which the higher-paying jobs with extra duties are consistently reserved for workers of one gender.
What "Equal Pay" Means
The EPA requires that employers pay workers at the same rate, but it doesn't require that employees receive the same total amount of compensation. If one worker earns more than another because of higher productivity -- for example, because the higher-paid employee has made more sales -- that does not violate the EPA.
The EPA requires more than equal wages. If employees do equal work, they are also entitled to equal fringe benefits, such as equal health and life insurance coverage, retirement plans or pensions, pre-tax medical or dependent care savings accounts, and use of company equipment. The EPA also applies to forms of compensation other than wages, including vacation time, profit sharing, and bonuses.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act
The EPA was passed one year before Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Both laws prohibit wage discrimination based on gender, but Title VII goes beyond ensuring equal pay to barring discrimination in all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, promotion, and more. In addition, Title VII broadly prohibits other forms of discrimination, including that based on race, color, religion, and national origin.
Suing Under the EPA vs. Title VII
In cases where both Title VII and the EPA apply, using the EPA offers some potential advantages, including:
- You can file a lawsuit under the EPA without first filing a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
- Unlike Title VII, the EPA does not require proof that the employer acted intentionally when discriminating. That can make an EPA case easier to win in court.
However, using Title VII has its own advantages -- chief among them that you can win more money. Under Title VII, you can ask the judge or jury not only for the wages you lost, but also for compensation for your pain and suffering (compensatory damages). The EPA does not offer these compensatory damages, although in some cases you can ask for double the amount of wages you lost as a penalty against the employer.
If you are considering a lawsuit under the EPA, Title VII, or both, you should probably discuss the potential advantages and disadvantages of each law with a lawyer before filing your case.
For more information on equal pay and gender discrimination, contact the your local field office of the EEOC (contact information available at www.eeoc.gov) and your state fair employment practices agency.
For an explanation of the 20 most important federal laws dealing with employment issues (including the Equal Pay Act), get The Essential Guide to Federal Employment Laws, by Amy DelPo and Lisa Guerin (Nolo).