The Equal Pay Act — What It Is And How It Can Protect You

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Adobe Stock / Jacob Lund

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Jacqueline Hernandez Lewis10
Attorney turned WFH Comms Mgr
May 18, 2024 at 7:7AM UTC
Today, more women are the breadwinners for their families than ever before, and yet, the gender pay gap persists. Though people know there are laws put in place to protect women employees, what those laws actually are is a mystery to many. One of those laws is the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

What Is the Equal Pay Act?

The Equal Pay Act declares the men and women must receive equal pay for equal work from the same employer. Jobs that require equal skills, effort, and responsibility that are completed under similar working conditions must be paid equally. 

Who Is Covered?

Essentially every type of employer must adhere to the Equal Pay Act. 

Making a Claim

If an employee feels aggrieved by his/her employer based on an alleged EPA violation, that employee may go directly to court. A charge is not required to be filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before going to court. The statute of limitations are the same for both going to court and filing an EPA charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: within two years of the “alleged unlawful compensation practice,” or within three years in the case of a “willful violation.”

History of the Equal Pay Act

Equal pay issues likely stem all the way back to when women entered the workforce. Back in February 1869, in a letter to the New York Times editor, an author questioned the pay disparity between male and female clerks. The author wrote:
"Very few persons deny the justice of the principle that equal work should command equal pay without regard to the sex of the laborer. But it is one thing to acknowledge the right of a principle and quite another to practice it … An example of justice by our National Government in placing the labor of woman upon equal footing with that of man in the Departments, could not fail to exert a wholesome influence upon individual employers and the country at large.”
The author noted that in some departments, such as Treasury, the wage gap was so bad that women were paid one-half the salary of their male counterparts.

Passage of the Act

That year, an equal pay law passed the House of Representatives by nearly 100 votes. Unfortunately, it was weakened to only apply to new employees when it reached the Senate in 1870, and enforcement was nonexistent.
During that time, New York led the fight for equal pay. In 1891, it enacted the Grady Bill, which required equal pay for New York City teachers. (It took until 1911, though, for the wage gap for this profession to be fully eliminated.)
It was not, however, until 1963 when a national equal pay law, signed by John F. Kennedy, was passed. That law was the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963

The Equal Pay Act (EPA) is a law that protects against discrimination in the workplace by requiring that a man and woman employee be paid equal wages for doing equal work in the same establishment. When conducting an EPA analysis, it is important to note that the jobs do not need to be identical, but they must be substantially equal. Substantially equal means that the jobs require substantially similar skill, effort, and responsibility; are performed under similar working conditions; and are within the same establishment. The determination of whether jobs are substantially similar is based on the job content, not title.  

Wage Differentials

Wage differentials are allowed within fair labor practices if based on particular criteria such as rank/tenure, merit, quantity or quality of production, or factors other than sex. These criteria are known as the "affirmative defenses" that employers must prove apply when paying different employee wages. When an employer resolves a pay differential, no employee’s pay may be reduced. The employer, therefore, has to increase the wages of the lower paid employee.


The median pay discrepancy is 80.7 cents (women) to every dollar (men) for full-time workers.
White women may make approximately 79 cents to every white man’s dollar, but Black women make only 67 cents to that dollar and Hispanic women earn just 58 cents, according to the 2017 "American Community Survey" from the US Census Bureau. These numbers reflect the uncontrolled, or “raw,” gender pay gap, in which job type and worker seniority aren’t controlled for. But even with these “opportunity gap” variables factored in, it’s still true that women on average earn less than men in the same position. And at this rate, it’s also true that women in the U.S. won’t see equal pay until 2059.

Victories for Equal Pay

The news regarding equal pay is not all bad. There are some happy stories and successes to be told.

• Pay Fairness Act

In January 2019, House Democrats introduced supplemental legislation that would prevent retaliation against employees for discussing salaries and place limits on using wage history as part of the hiring process. 
 Massachusetts, Philadelphia, and New York City have already banned the practice of employers’ asking for the salary histories of prospective employees. The rationale is that due to unequal pay between men and women, women would be placed at an unfair disadvantage and potentially subjected to wage discrimination if expected to share their respectively lower salary histories with prospective employers. It’s speculated that other states and cities may soon adopt similar anti-discrimination laws, which would be a huge step toward eliminating pay discrimination in the U.S.

• 2019 World Surf League’s Championship Tour

For the first time since the tour was established, women earned equal prize money as male surfers for winning the competition in 2019. THis came after much criticism, particularly from the  Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, about sexist practices in the tour.

• The U.S. Hockey Women’s Team 

USA Hockey agreed to give women a monthly stipend, travel insurance, and better bonus payouts. This happened because the women’s team threatened to boycott the World Championship until they were given substantially higher pay since the men’s team was paid much higher employee wages. Though negotiations took over a year, the women’s team sent a good message to female athletes and employees around the world. The captain of the women’s team, Meghan Duggan said, "I hope what we did shows young girls, shows anyone, to stick together, stay strong, and fight for what you believe in."

The Gender Pay Gap: Present Day

Though much has happened in the fight for equal pay, there is still much work to be done toward achieving true pay equity and paycheck fairness. Women are still severely underpaid, not guaranteed paid maternity leave, and nearly one in four women is harassed at work.
With activism, organizing, and social, cultural, and policy changes, there will come a time when equal pay is realized and the pay gap is no more. Until then, do not despair. Know your value. Know your worth. And ask for the pay you deserve.
Jackie is the owner of her blog Moments of Musing, where she writes about her life as a wife, mom, and more living in New York City. She works with survivors of intimate partner violence.

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