Today we commemorate “African American Women’s Equal Pay Day,” the day in the year when African American women’s wages finally catch up to what men earned last year. It is important to note that African American Women’s Equal Pay Day comes nearly four months after “Women’s Equal Pay Day,” which included wages of women of all races, and was marked on April 12th of this year. The four-month lag signifies the nearly 20-cent wider wage gap African American women face when compared to women of all races. So, while the average wage gap for all women in the United States is 79 cents for every dollar a man makes, African American women’s wages are at just 60.5 cents on the dollar. African American lesbian couples, who doubly experience the high wage gap (plus discrimination based on sexual orientation), have triple the poverty rate of white lesbian couples.
Eliminating the racial gender wage gap would provide concrete economic benefits to African American women. To give a concrete example, women could buy nearly three years of food for their families or pay rent for nearly two years with those additional wages. Given that so many African American women and their families are struggling to make ends meet, receiving equal pay would make a life-changing difference.
Last year, California passed one of the strongest equal pay laws in the country, the California Fair Pay Act of 2015, which strengthened protection for workers who discuss or ask about their wages and the wages of others. It also protects women who challenge gender based pay differences in jobs that are “substantially similar” to theirs. For example, a female housekeeper who is being paid less than a male janitor could remedy the pay difference since the jobs are so similar and wage inequality would likely be unjustified. The California Labor Commissioner is charged with enforcing the California Fair Pay Act.
This year, California State Senator Hall has introduced SB 1063, the Wage Equality Act of 2016, which would add race and ethnicity to California’s strong Fair Pay Act. Under SB 1063, California employers would be prohibited from paying workers less for substantially similar work based on race or ethnicity. An African American woman thus might have a claim that she is being paid less based not only on sex, but on race as well. With SB 1063, she would be able to more effectively address racial wage inequality.
Certain cities already are specifically addressing wage inequality by sex, race and ethnicity. For example, in San Francisco, city contractors will have to disclose data on what they pay their workers, broken down by both sex and race, to the City. California state contractors may also be required to submit similar pay data reports under another bill that should reach the governor’s desk for approval. And the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission intends to revise its Employer Information Report (EEO-1) data collection to include salary information based on ethnicity, race, and sex.
Our current laws against sex and race discrimination have proven inadequate to end race- and sex-based unequal pay since the pay gap remains depressingly large more than fifty years after passage of federal civil rights laws in these areas. Pay disclosure rules are an important step towards closing the pay gap for women and women of color in particular. They force employers to self-audit and identify unjustified pay disparities. In the event they do not correct the disparities, disclosure enable government agencies to conduct targeted enforcement of equal pay laws.
It will reportedly be more than a decade before the first African American woman (Harriet Tubman) graces the face of U.S. currency. With these new laws there is hope that before the Tubmans arrive, African American women will already be receiving the full value of those $20 bills and not just 60 percent.
The Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center together with the California Women’s Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates make up the California Fair Pay Collaborative dedicated to engaging and informing Californians about fair pay issues.