11.7   Individuals and Society Suffer When People are Underpaid

Inadequate pay impacts both men and women, and it hurts American families. Since the 1970’s, it has required two wage earners to support a reasonable middle class family life style. With inflation and economic conditions worsening, very few families can afford to have only one person bringing home a paycheck. It is your job to make sure that you are getting an equitable wage for the work you do. If you do not do your home work you and your family stand to lose. Both men and women need to be armed with information about their worth and their assets to ensure that they receive an appropriate salary.

Unfortunately there is a huge discrepancy in what people in the same positions are paid in many work environments. Failing to get the info you need to negotiate effectively is lethal. This is particularly true for women. Women are paid about 77% of what men are paid for working full time, according to a 2005 US Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Minority women are paid even less. It all starts quite early in the career cycle. According to National Association of Colleges and Employers, at the entry level, male college graduates typically receive more than female college graduates. And we know that just with compound interest, the differences are amplified over the years.

It is true in the private and public sectors: women do not receive equal pay for equal work. The cumulative effect is devastating and it is long lasting. In the short term pay disparity affects a candidate's spending power and in the long term it diminishes their retirement earnings. It is a huge looming crisis for baby-boomers who are beginning to wonder how they will be able to save enough money and accrue enough earnings to see them through their retirement years.

According to the National Organization for Women, "If women received the same wages as men who work the same number of hours, have the same education and union status, are the same age, and live in the same region of the country, then these women's annual income would rise by $4,000 and poverty rates would be cut in half. Working families would gain an astounding $200 billion in family income annually."

Consider the case of Lilly Ledbetter, a supervisor for GM who was paid 15% to 25% less than her male counterparts, including those with significantly less experience than her. Although GM has a strict policy of secrecy on salaries, with employees forbidden to discuss their salaries, Lilly Ledbetter received an anonymous letter indicating that she had been underpaid for 19 years at GM. She filed a lawsuit and a jury awarded her a $3 million settlement. A judge cut that ruling from $3 million to $360,000 due to the limitation inserted into the Civil Rights Act of 1991 during the first Bush administration.

GM pursued the issue all the way to the US Supreme Court. The Court ruled that even though she was not aware of the discrepancy for 19 years, she had to file her suit within 180 days of when it occurred for the very first time.

The 2007 ruling effectively says that if you can keep it a secret, you can get away with paying less to women and minorities.

Typically, wage disparity is considered to be an issue in the private sector, a problem that does not exist in public employment. That, however, is not the case. In public employment situations, it can happen in much more subtle ways. In public employment, wage disparity discrimination is accomplished under the table through classification and promotion practices.

Secrecy is not a good thing, as was discovered by Lilly Ledbetter. Secrecy gives license for unequal treatment. What we need is transparency. One engineer I know who works in private industry has long made it his practice to tell his colleagues what he earns. His view is that he does not wish to be part of a conspiracy of secrecy, and he wants his fellow workers to have the opportunity to negotiate on equal footing. He is committed to sunshine and transparency in the workplace.