Panel pushes end to secrecy on women's pay

WASHINGTON - Rampant secrecy about pay, often written into employers' rules and "employee handbooks," helps fuel pay discrimination against women on the job, a panel of equal pay advocates says.

The June 9 discussion, convened by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, found in a new survey that 48 percent of employees reported that they're subject to flat bans about talking about their pay, under threat of discipline or firing. In the private sector, it's 60 percent.

"Pay secrecy policies are incredibly prevalent," said Carol Golubock, policy director for the Service Employees and one of the four panelists. But "union counsel can deal with them" and the National Labor Relations Act makes pay a mandatory subject of bargaining, she added, thus lessening secrecy.

The secrecy particularly harms woman workers and their families, 48 years after Congress passed the original Equal Pay Act, the panelists said. But that law has few teeth, no damages - unlike other civil rights laws - and is enforced by a small agency, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. And only six percent of EEOC discrimination complaints involve sexual pay discrimination, panelists said.

"The National Labor Relations Board has made it clear that prohibiting employees from talking about pay is an unfair labor practice," the formal name for company labor law-breaking, Golubock explained.

Unfortunately, she reiterated the fact that penalties for labor law-breakers under the National Labor Relations Act aren't much better: Back pay minus earnings gleaned from other jobs while awaiting resolution of labor law cases, which can take years.

As a result, Golubock admitted, "even when the union does come in" by winning a recognition election and negotiating a contract for workers "employers don't pull their pay policies" banning such pay discussions. "It's often a battle for us," she said.

The more usual thing is in the form of a phrase she quoted from an unnamed New Hampshire employers' handbook: "At no time is the employee to discuss pay with anyone. If so, the employee is immediately terminated."

All this prompted the panel to again urge the crowd, which packed a Senate hearing room, to push for the Paycheck Fairness Act. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would put some teeth in the older law. Their bill entered the House in the Democratic-run 111th Congress. The Senate fell two votes short of breaking a GOP filibuster against it.

Their bill would award triple damages to workers - without subtracting other pay - who win discrimination suits. It would also outlaw employer bans on workers discussing pay. And it would award compensatory and punitive damages.

And the proposed law would cover every worker, Golubock pointed out; that includes those now exempt from the National Labor Relations Act: Home health care workers, farm workers, domestic workers and anyone the NLRB rules is a "supervisor." Passing it would also let workers pursue other wage frauds, she added, notably denial of earned overtime pay.

But there are also other forms of discrimination on the job that hurt women workers' paychecks, panelists said.

Lila Hunter-Taylor, CEO of The Staff Hunter, a placement firm, and a member of the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce - which is more sympathetic to workers than the regular male-dominated U.S. Chamber of Commerce - said women often are not socialized to speak up for themselves in negotiating pay.

They take the first offer, she added - and employers know it. Some have even told her flatly they prefer hiring women for new vacancies because of that.

"Such persistent wage gaps can be challenged only when women have the tools available to them" by pay comparisons with other workers, Hunter-Taylor said.

Fatima Gross-Graves of the National Women's Law Center pinpointed another problem the law does not address, but that the pending class action suit against Wal-Mart, now before the Supreme Court, does: "A culture of intimidation, of being fired and demoted for discussing pay, suppresses wages in and of itself," she stated.

Class-action suits, if the court allows them, help overcome that culture by putting the whole issue in the hands of courts, she noted.

But a big key that ran through all the presentations was that information, or lack of it, can affect the chances for women gaining equal pay, and that's where the legislation comes in.

"If a worker can talk with another worker about how much they're paid," Golubock concluded, "enforcement" of equal pay laws "is much easier."