What is Equal Pay?

Thirty-five years ago, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the first statute to address discrimination in the work place. The law prohibits employers from paying a female worker less than a male counterpart for "equal work."

The law defines "equal work" as jobs that require equal skill, effort and responsibility and are performed in similar working conditions. The tasks need not be identical, but substantially similar. When applying the equal work definition, the comparison is between the skills required by the two jobs, not by the talents of the two employees.

A job's skill level includes the experience, training, education, and ability necessary to accomplish that task. Effort is measured by the physical or mental exertion needed to perform the job, and responsibility refers to the level of accountability required. Similar working conditions include both an analysis of the job's surroundings and hazards. Surroundings address the frequency or intensity of certain elements, like toxic chemicals. Hazards relate to the physical dangers regularly faced on the job.

Exceptions to the act do exist. An established seniority or merit pay system, pay based on quantity or quality of production, or pay based on any other factor than sex exempt the business from the law. However, the employer must be able to present an acceptable business reason for the other factor exception to apply.

The Equal Pay Act covers any employer who engages in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce and has an annual gross volume of at least $500,000. Federal, state, and local governments, medical and mental hospitals, schools, and public agencies also fall under the act. Labor unions cannot cause or attempt to cause a business to violate the act. And while originally designed to protect women's rights in the work place, the Equal Pay Act applies to both men and women.

A worker who believes the employer is violating the Act may file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or may file suit in state or federal court. Filing a complaint with the EEOC is not required for Equal Pay Act violations. The worker has two years from the date of the equal pay violation to bring suit, three years if the violation was intentional.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against any person on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin with respect to one's compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment. A violation of the Equal Pay Act is always a Title VII violation, and any case should invoke both statutes.

If the claimant successfully proves discriminatory wage practices, he or she is entitled to back pay, including unpaid minimum wages or unpaid overtime compensation. If the court rules the violation was intentional, it may double the amount of unpaid wages as "liquidated damages."