Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday August 14th, 2014, 2:28pm

Duckworth Talks Paycheck Fairness, Gender Wage Gap At Suburban Panel Discussion

U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL,8) called attention to the gender wage gap and federal legislation designed to help close it at a panel discussion in Hanover Park Thursday morning. 

In Illinois, women make 78 cents for every dollar that a man earns. On average, females in the Prairie State earn nearly $12,000 less than their male counterparts each year, Duckworth noted.

"Basically, we're shortchanging our families," the congresswoman said at the discussion with representatives from government agencies and non-profits. "That really affects not just the breadwinner, or the women herself, but her entire family" and the local economy "because people have less buying power." 

Duckworth stressed the importance of the Paycheck Fairness ActS. 2199, federal legislation that would allow employees to share salary information between co-workers without retaliation. The measure has stalled in Congress.

"What (the legislation) actually will do is create greater transparency," which can help level the playing field, said Duckworth, who is a co-sponsor of the legislation in the House.

The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) in the Senate and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D, CT-3) in the House, H.R. 377, would also close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act and bring penalties in line with other civil rights laws.

Additionally, the pending legislation would install new rules related to data collection, which could make it easier for workers to prove claims of wage discrimination, Duckworth explained.

"The way that the laws are right now, the onus is on the employee to prove that there's true discrimination," she said. "But the people who control the data are the employers, and it's really easy to manipulate that data or not release that data. The new legislation would actually work with the Department of Labor to say, these are the things you will gather, and then this is how you're going to teach the employers how they can provide that data so that we can have that information."

Back in April, Republicans in the Senate blocked advancement of the Paycheck Fairness Act. Duckworth urged Congressional members against the proposal to get behind it.

"We're a country made up of hard-working men and women, and it's time we start acting like everyone is hardworking," she stressed.

Although females earn about 77 cents on average at the national level for every dollar paid to males, the pay disparity is not the same for women of different races, explained said K. Sujata with the Chicago Foundation for Women.

White women earn 81 cents to the man's dollar at the national level. African-American females, however, are paid just 68 cents for every dollar paid to white males, and Hispanic and Latino women earn 59 cents, she noted. 

Sujata said the wage gap exacerbates poverty among women. Nationwide, one in four women live in poverty, she said. And nearly a third of U.S. female-headed households are living below the federal poverty line. This means families have less resources for things like groceries, medicine and other necessities, she said.

For example, Sujata has heard stories of working mothers with infants who have had to extend their baby formula by diluting it with water.

"We don't want to raise malnourished children in our communities," she said. "That is not the kind of state we are."

To help close the gender pay gap, Teresa Faidley, chairperson at the Schaumburg Center for Economic Development, would like to see an increase in skilled job training programs for women and girls, specifically focused on science, engineering, technology and math (STEM) careers.

"That is where the money is," she said. 

Barbara Yong, organizer of the Equal Pay Day rally, said pay disparity between men and women does exist in STEM fields, but the gap is much smaller than in other careers. 

There are various drivers behind the gender wage gap, but panelists said the issue of pay negotiation at work plays a big role. A man, Yong said, is more likely to negotiate a salary with an employer than a woman.

"Negotiation is probably the largest factor [of] why women don't get paid like men," she said. 

Yong said women need to know that "it's ok to negotiate." She recommendeded that women talk with their co-workers about their respective salaries. Under the Illinois' Equal Pay Act, it is illegal for an employer to prohibit workers from talking about salary or retaliate against them for doing so, she said. That's not the case in all states, which is why the Paycheck Fairness Act is important, Duckworth said.

Also, Yong said women should be "armed with information" before they go in for a job interview.

"You should know what that job should pay," she said. "So when you walk into that interview, you're able to talk about what this job should pay."

Tricia O'Brien, president of the Hoffman Estates Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said she tells women who want to become better negotiators to go to a local swap meet and bargain for a lower price on an item.

"I have had so many [women] come back in my office and say, 'That has given me so much confidence. I saved $5, and now I feel I can negotiate."

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