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Linda Meric: On Equal Pay Day, time to stop shortchanging women workers

April 9 is Equal Pay Day, and for the first time in many years, the weekly earnings gap is widening for all women. That’s why this year’s Equal Pay Day is even more important than usual. Pay discrimination is a real and persistent problem that continues to shortchange American women and their families.

Women earn less than men in every state and region of the country. In real terms, women earned 77 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2011.

For women of color the gap is even wider — African-American women earned only 69 cents and Latinas just 60 cents for every dollar earned by all men in 2011, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

There are a number of reasons why a significant pay gap exists. First, women and people of color are overrepresented in undervalued and underpaid occupations such as child care and home health care and waiting tables. Second, there is outright discrimination. Even when working in male-dominated fields that pay more, such as engineering or computer programming, women often still earn less.

Third, many working women are penalized financially for caregiving at home because they lack access to basic policies like paid sick days and family leave.

When women are paid less than men, it hurts their families. Women lose hundreds of thousands of dollars or more over their careers. That means less money to make ends meet and achieve economic security for their loved ones. And since women make three-quarters of family-purchasing decisions, it means less money is spent in our local economies.

Progress on closing the gap has slowed noticeably since the 1980s and early 1990s. Since 2001, the gender pay gap has narrowed by only about one percentage point. At this rate, it will take another 45 years for women to earn as much as men. To make real advances in closing the gap, we must strengthen enforcement of existing anti-discrimination laws and pass new laws that give women the tools they need to get the pay they deserve.

One new law, the Healthy Families Act, would give workers the right to earn paid sick days. Another, the Paycheck Fairness Act, would close loopholes in our existing equal pay laws, prohibit retaliation against workers who ask about or share wage information, and empower women to better negotiate salary and benefit increases.

This bill was introduced in 2009 and then again in 2010 only to be defeated by a minority of senators. It was reintroduced in the current Congress in January.

This Equal Pay Day, let’s fight for fair public policies that value women’s work, honor their contributions to their families and spur a thriving economy.

Linda Meric is executive director of 9to5, the nationwide membership organization of working women that was founded in 1973.

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