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House passes equal pay bill, but it’s likely to stall in the Senate

▶ Watch Video: Equal Pay Day: Confronting the gap in men and women’s earnings

The House narrowly approved legislation aimed at closing the gender wage gap on Thursday, but the bill is expected to stall in the evenly divided Senate, where it faces Republican opposition.

The Paycheck Fairness Act passed largely along party lines with a vote of 217 to 210. The bill, which is supported by the Biden administration, would make it easier to sue employers over pay discrimination, strengthen prohibitions against retaliation against workers who make discrimination complaints, increase penalties for wage discrimination on the basis of gender and ban contracts that bar workers from sharing their salaries.

“This pandemic has brought out the depth of our problems, exposed existing inequalities, and threatened women’s economic security at a disproportionate rate,” said Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, the House Appropriations Committee chair and a lead sponsor of the bill, in a speech on the House floor ahead of the vote. 

Democrats say there’s more work to be done to close the wage gap between men and women. In 2019, women who were full-time wage and salary workers had median usual weekly earnings that were 82% of what men who were full-time wage and salary workers were earning, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Women have also been greatly affected by job loss during the coronavirus pandemic: they’ve disproportionately held in-person service jobs in hospitality, food service and health care, many of which have been terminated over the past year. In December alone, 156,000 jobs were lost, all of them among women. Meanwhile, men gained 16,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, many Republicans argue that the pay gap is not a result of gender discrimination, but rather the different career choices made by women, who are often the primary caretakers of their families.

“Democrats aren’t giving the full story when they talk about pay differences,” Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx said in a speech on the House floor on Thursday. “Women are making career choices that are best for themselves and their families.”

Republicans also argue that the bill could lead to a rise in spurious lawsuits against employers. The bill is opposed by business as well, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce contending in a letter to House members this week that “further increasing the opportunity for frivolous litigation would only further serve to undermine our nation’s civil rights laws.”

Democrats hold the narrowest possible majority in the Senate, with 50 seats. Most legislation requires 60 votes to advance, and it is unlikely that 10 Republicans will join Democrats in voting to open debate on the bill. Still, Democrats appealed to the Senate to consider the bill’s merit.

“How can you say to your mother, your sister, your wife, your daughter that they should not receive the same pay – yourself – the same pay for the same job?” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Thursday. “We’re really hoping that we’ll be able to pass this in the Senate as well.”

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