With the stroke of a pen, President Obama signed his first bill into law and fulfilled a campaign promise to help make it easier to sue for equal pay.
The bill is named for an Alabama woman who found out her employer, Goodyear, had been paying her less than her male counterparts for years, but she was prevented from suing because of a statute of limitations in effect at the time. The new law effectively extends the statute of limitations.
Obama spoke often of the equal pay issue during the campaign, as did then-rival Hillary Clinton. And the president made special note of the fact that this was the first piece of legislation he was signing into law.
"It is fitting that the very first bill that I sign -- the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act -- that it is upholding one of this nation's founding principles: that we are all created equal, and each deserve a chance to pursue our own version of happiness," he said.
A couple of quick things, first: is there any sillier way to start this article than "With the stroke of a pen..."? Especially since Obama, like most recent presidents, used several pens to sign it?
Second, "our own version of happiness..."? Kind of relativistic, isn't it?
Now on to the substance: I have no problem in theory with the notion of equal work and equal pay. There is no denying that in the past women were sometimes paid less than their male counterparts to do the same jobs, and that's not a just situation.
However, in practice the notion of equal work/equal pay often creates an impossible situation for employers and employees alike. In a department with three men and five women, for instance, what happens when one of the men is doing an outstanding job and deserves a raise? Will he get it--or will the employer be pressured to keep all the men's pay equal to or less than the women's pay in order to avoid lawsuits and charges of discrimination?
Moreover, it can be difficult in some fields of employment to define "equal work;" while corporate jobs can be somewhat easy to compare, what happens, for instance, when three retail employees all have the title "store associate," but one of them is a cashier, one is a salesclerk, and one is responsible for assisting in unloading merchandise from a truck? Are these "equal work" jobs that should be paid exactly the same--and can the cashier sue if her male co-worker in the receiving department makes a few dollars more an hour than she does?
This new law makes it easier for those who believe they have been victims of pay disparity to sue their employers, by making the statute of limitations much longer than it was previously. I think the effect of that will be to make employers decide to flatten as many pay levels as possible to avoid being sued, effectively depressing wages across the board. Granted, employers are already depressing wages and eliminating jobs to deal with the economic downturn, but this will add another layer to that effort.
The biggest problem I have with "equal pay" efforts, though, is that the only time I was ever aware of unequal pay at a company where I worked, the people being paid less were the white males in the department (I can't give details, I'm afraid). No one in the company considered this an unjust situation; it was what had to happen in order to pay higher salaries and offer more promotion opportunities to women and minorities, as expected by other federal civil rights legislation. It would have been possible for the white men in certain jobs in that company to prove that they were being paid less than their female or minority counterparts--but I wonder if they would have been successful in a lawsuit; after all, there were plenty of highly-paid Ivy League graduate white males in the same company's management positions, so clearly the company didn't discriminate against white males per se.
Like so many efforts, well-intentioned though they may be, to end discrimination, equal-pay efforts may end up making it quasi-legal to discriminate against white men. We can't fight injustice by creating new injustices; ending discrimination against one group by shifting the discrimination to another will ultimately backfire.