Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District

Washington – Paying men more than women for the same job was outlawed 50 years ago, but the issue has become one of the most divisive in an already balkanized Congress and promises to be a campaign theme for this year’s midterm elections.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro and other Connecticut lawmakers say discrimination still exists, and the Equal Pay Act must be updated.

“This is not just a problem for women. Less pay for women means less income. That affects the entire family,” said DeLauro, D-3rd District.

DeLauro, sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act in the House, says she wants to correct unexpected shortcomings in the landmark Equal Pay Act of 1963, which mandates that men and women be given equal pay for equal work in the same establishment.

One flaw is that federal labor law does not protect workers who share information about their salaries with colleagues. The Paycheck Fairness Act would offer protections against retaliation.

The bill would also require employers to demonstrate that wage gaps between men and women doing the same work have a business justification and are truly a result of factors other than gender.

“Women are the backbone of our economy,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the Senate sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act. “When the Equal Pay Act was signed into law in 1963, women made only 59 cents for every dollar earned by men. Today, it is 77 cents for every dollar. And it is even worse for women of color.”

The Women’s National Law Center determined that Connecticut ranks 24th among the  50 states and the District of Columbia when it comes to the wage gap. The center says women in Connecticut earn 78.4 cents for every dollar a man in the same job earns. The District of Columbia has the smallest wage gap, and Wyoming has the largest, the center says. (A Mirror story and chart of pay differences by state is available here.)

The Mikulski-DeLauro legislation is opposed by most Republican lawmakers and by powerful interests, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“This bill is about more litigation, more lawyers and more class-action lawsuits,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

At a hearing Tuesday on the Senate version of the Paycheck Fairness Act, Alexander argued that the bill would prevent employers from giving female workers “flexibility” or time off to take care of family matters in return for a reduced salary.

But Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said everybody wants flextime.

“Dads want to go to soccer game, moms want to go to soccer games,” Franken said. Proponents of the law said the wage gap should end.

“I can’t believe we are discussing equal work for equal pay in 2014,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Democrats, hoping to win the support of a majority of women in this year’s election, have made the Paycheck Fairness Act an issue in this political season.

The Senate hopes to move forward on the bill next week. But Mikulski is two votes short of the 60 needed to move the legislation forward, even as she has won support of at least two Republican female senators — Sue Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Both of Connecticut’s Democratic Senators — Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy — support the bill.

In the GOP-controlled House, DeLauro is trying to force a vote on her bill through a “discharge petition” that requires a majority of House lawmakers’ signatures. DeLauro’s petition has 197 signatures, all Democrats, but she needs 218.

Even if the legislation moves fails to move forward, Democrats will have a win. The issue of equal pay is popular among women voters, especially those who are single, polls show.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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