CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- During the 2012 election cycle, I traveled all across West Virginia to register millennial voters (people between the ages of 18 and 31). Many of these men and women were shocked to hear statistics about the gender pay gap that persists in the United States and, specifically, in West Virginia.
I wasn't surprised by their disbelief or outrage, as I've seen that reaction many times while working with various student groups to raise awareness regarding the gender pay gap. In particular, I remember last April, when the Fairmont State University student organization of the American Association of University Women held an Equal Pay Day bake sale where they charged participants for baked goods based on their gender to illustrate the pay gap: $1 for men, 70 cents for women.
The event was part of a symbolic day that shows women in the United States have to work after Jan. 1 to achieve what their male counterparts earned the previous year. Women have had to work well into the second quarter of the year for far too long.
On June 10, we will recognize other important occasion in the life cycle of unequal pay. Monday is the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act. This act was passed to close the gender pay gap. But 50 years later, we still see a great disparity in wages in this country. In West Virginia, nearly 10 percent of households are headed by women, and more than one-third of those households fall below the poverty level. According to U.S. Census data, women working full time in West Virginia in 2011 earned an average of 70 cents for every $1 that men made. As a group, these women lose more than $2.5 million annually. This is a significant loss to our state's economy. But it also is a direct loss for West Virginia's children.
The Paycheck Fairness Act would protect West Virginia families from this disparity and help end wage discrimination nationwide. It would prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who discuss salaries with colleagues. This provision means workers could freely and openly discuss their wages without fear that their employer may fire them or otherwise harass them, thus providing opportunity to shed light on unfair pay practices.
If there are pay inequities, this act would require employers to show that the difference is solely job related and legitimate. The Paycheck Fairness Act also would enhance the ability of the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate and enforce pay discrimination laws. So, not only will workers be free to discuss their pay with one another, but also the federal agencies tasked with protecting workers from discrimination will be empowered to hold accountable employers that participate in unfair pay practices.
West Virginia has a long history of encouraging small businesses and has some of the highest rates of women-owned businesses in the country. The Paycheck Fairness Act would provide those businesses with assistance to implement equal pay practices and would recognize businesses that excel in paycheck fairness. It also would implement training programs for wage negotiation skills, so that women can start their careers or change employers with added resources for ending the pay gap.
Simply put, the Paycheck Fairness Act is good policy -- and as the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act shows, it's long overdue policy. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has demonstrated his support for the Paycheck Fairness Act by cosponsoring the legislation in the 113th Congress, so I have only one question for West Virginia's other senator, Jay Rockefeller: What are you waiting for?
Barber, of Mannington, is assistive technologies specialist at Pierpont Community & Technical College and a member of American Association of University Women of West Virginia.