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Closing the wage gap 

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On Tuesday, April 20, people across Colorado, and the nation, observed Equal Pay Day 2010 — representing the point when women's wages finally caught up to men's wages from last year.

According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics, women who work in full-time, year-round jobs earn, on average, 77 cents to every $1 earned by men working in full-time, year-round jobs.

For women of color, the wage gap is even wider. In 2008, the earnings for African American women were 67.9 percent of men's earnings, and Latinas' earnings were 58 percent of men's pay.

In Colorado, women's earnings generally exceed the national average by a penny or so per hour. But this is no great cause for celebration — especially in these tough times when every penny counts. As those lost pennies add up, women and their families are being shortchanged by thousands of dollars a year, which becomes hundreds of thousands over a typical lifetime.

Reaching pay equity means more now than ever before.

According to the Center for American Progress report, "A Woman's Nation Changes Everything," women are now the breadwinner or co-breadwinner in two-thirds of all American families. With more women in the workforce, and more families reliant upon women's paychecks to make ends meet, it's clear to see how all of us — women and men — have such a huge stake in eliminating the wage gap.

The good news is that there are pending state and federal actions that would positively impact the pay gap now.

In Colorado, we're working to establish a permanent state Pay Equity Commission. Nationally, we are hopeful for the Paycheck Fairness Act.

The statewide effort grows from the nonpartisan Colorado Pay Equity Commission, created in 2007. That commission brought a diverse group of stakeholders together to analyze the pay gap and identify solutions. One of the key recommendations was to create a permanent Pay Equity Commission to further focus on the problem, monitor pay equity progress and work toward solutions in the state. Just Monday, a bill was introduced in the Legislature to set up such a commission, with 11 members to be appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter by Aug. 1 representing a national women's group, different-sized businesses, labor, attorneys and higher education.

Nationally, women were earning a mere 59 cents for every $1 a man earned when the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963. Enforcement of the Equal Pay Act, and other civil rights laws, has helped narrow the wage gap, but huge disparities have remained. In 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act was signed into law, helping ensure that victims of discrimination have fair access to the courts.

But we're not there yet. Additional steps are needed.

One such step, the Paycheck Fairness Act, would close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act, enhance remedies, prohibit retaliation against workers who share wage information, and provide the government with new tools to monitor and address pay inequities. Passage is critical — particularly in these economically perilous times when the self-sufficiency of women and their families is so at risk.

LaTerrell Bradford, a Denver woman who testified about pay inequity before the Legislature, calls equal pay a "non-negotiable." She was working as part of an all-female support team when a man was hired in the same job classification. Her supervisor, a woman, discovered he was to earn much more than any of the women were earning. She went to human resources, and the company agreed to pay everyone at that higher rate.

"It would not have been fair," Bradford says, "nor legal, to sit next to him, do the exact same work and have him be paid more."

Are women workers really worth less than men? Any American of good conscience would say "no." We must ensure that our laws and workplace practices say "no" as well by ensuring family-flexible workplace policies, basic labor standards like paid sick days and, yes, an end to the wage gap.

Women and their families just cannot afford to wait any longer. We must tighten wage disparity laws now to ensure equity for every worker.

Linda Meric is national director of 9to5 National Association of Working Women, headquartered in Milwaukee, Wis.

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