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New York Times editor's case draws new attention to pay-equity bill

May 20, 2014 - By Kevin G. Hall MCT, Washington Bureau

Charges that The New York Times paid its top female editor less than male peers has breathed new life into legislation that seeks to ensure that women and men earn the same amount for the same work performed.

The proposed Paycheck Fairness Act may have received a boost when the newspaper fired executive editor Jill Abramson. Other news outlets reported that she'd complained about earning less than her predecessors in the same job, though the paper denied that she made less.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., jumped in, saying that Abramson's firing and alleged unequal pay were an argument for the proposed law.

"It's now in the press because she complained she was doing the same work as men in two different jobs and made a lot less money than they did," Reid said. "That's why we needed that legislation. That's why my daughter should make as much money as a man who does the same work that she does."

The act doesn't require equal pay. It would punish employers who seek to retaliate against workers who've shared salary information with each other. The act's sponsor -- Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. -- said last month that current law allowed a "veil of secrecy" in the workplace that kept women from learning how they fared compared with male co-workers.

"You can talk about anything but you can't talk about what the person next to you is making," Mikulski said in a floor speech April 9 as her bill was stymied.

Reid is expected to bring up the measure for a vote again closer to November's elections in order to distinguish Democrats from Republicans, who opinion polls suggest are poised to capture control of the upper chamber of Congress.

Not a single GOP member broke ranks on the procedural vote, which fell seven members short. Republicans argue that the act's allowance of punitive damages amounts to an open invitation for lawsuits.

A Democratic aide who's close to the legislation, demanding anonymity in order to discuss strategy freely, said the Abramson drama underscored the need for legislation that offered remedies for pay inequity and prohibited retaliation.

"It seems like it fits one of these situations," said the aide.

Women have made strides in corporate America. By Fortune magazine's count, a record 23 women headed Fortune 500 companies as of December. They head global companies such as General Motors, Pepsi, Hewlett-Packard and Xerox. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is on the cover of the May editions of Fortune.

Similarly, the magazine Corporate Counsel reported in March that 106 women this year head the legal departments of Fortune 500 companies. That's a bit better than 1 in 5, and it's up sharply from 44 in 1999 and just one in 1979, the first year a woman headed the general counsel's office of a major corporation. It was information-services company CCH Inc.

Despite those successes, women -- who in the most recent reading made up 50.8 percent of the U.S. population -- lag men more broadly on a number of workplace measures.

Labor Department data show that the midpoint weekly earnings for women who work full time stood at $706 last year, well below the $860 for men. Census Bureau data suggest women overall earn about 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, raising the question of how companies are doing in narrowing the pay gap.

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