WASHINGTON — Two pharmaceutical reps shared the same job description and sales quota. They called on the same clients and split their commission 50/50. But the man earned a base salary 60 percent higher than his female partner.
When Fort Lauderdale attorney Karen Coolman Amlong sued her client's employer, the answer she received shocked her.
"We have to pay him more or else the competition will hire him away," the employer told Amlong.
"They think the woman is going to get married and have children," Amlong said. "They assume men will stay in the workforce. Because they're valued more highly, they're paid more."
Paying men and women different salaries simply because of gender is illegal in the United States, but proving it is so difficult and sometimes so risky for women that widespread inequities remain nearly 50 years after the Equal Pay Act was passed to close the pay gap.
Democrats in Congress are expected to take a tougher pay-fairness bill to a vote in the next few weeks. It's unlikely to receive any Republican support.
"The misnamed Paycheck Fairness Act may help trial lawyers, but it doesn't do one thing to help create jobs for women or improve anyone's wages," said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta. "The end result of this bill would be more lawsuits, fewer jobs, and lower wages for everyone."
Supporters of the legislation do not deny that part of the intent is to make it easier to file a lawsuit. They believe such lawsuits, or the threat of them, are good incentives for employers to ensure fairness.
The bill also would prohibit businesses from retaliating against employees who reveal pay information. It is legal for an employer to fire someone who has shared confidential salary data.
"Most of the Equal Pay Act cases that I've handled have been cases in which people have learned by accident" that they are being paid less, Amlong said. "It's certainly not because employers are going to let that information out."
A decades-old gap
Census figures show the pay gap has existed for decades. Florida women earn 80 cents to a man's $1, according to data released in April.
Female workers in the Sunshine State fare better than their counterparts across the nation, who earn 77 cents on the dollar, 2010 census figures reveal.
Women can't seem to close the gap with education. Florida women with bachelor's degrees earned 75 percent of what men with the same degrees earned, the National Women's Law Center said in an April report that based its calculations on census data. Women with high school diplomas earned 80 percent of men with the same schooling, the center said.
Entering professions known to command high salaries does not begin to level the salary schedule, either. Women in Florida working in management, business and financial occupations in 2010 were paid 76 cents to every dollar paid to men in the same occupations, the law center's April report found.
A White House task force on the pay gap revealed that women are not only paid less for equal work, but are often pigeonholed in lower-paying positions or denied access to jobs traditionally held by men.
Paying women less has long-term consequences, critics of the pay gap say. Many retirement plans, such as 401(k)s, allow enrollees to invest a percentage of their income. If their male colleagues are earning higher salaries, the men are automatically given an advantage in retirement earnings, too.
"The wage gap is probably one reason that women go into retirement with lower savings than men," said Emily Martin, general counsel for the National Women's Law Center.
Underpaying women hurts families, supporters of the bill say.
In 2008, nearly 40 percent of mothers were family breadwinners, as single mothers or married women with children earning at least as much as their husbands, according to the Center for American Progress. Although more recent figures are not available, some experts believe the poor economy has put more women in the role of breadwinner since 2008.
Critic: It's about 'choice'
The bill has its critics, even among women. Being too quick to try to fix the pay gap may end up destroying some of the culture that is working for women, said Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative nonprofit that studies policy issues.
"The differences in pay between men and women come down to choices," Schaeffer wrote in a May 4 U.S. News and World Report online piece opposing the Paycheck Fairness Act. "More women than men choose to take time off to raise a family, but that's a far cry from discrimination. And costs are the result of a woman's freedom, not an injustice imposed on her by society."
The bill would limit reasons employers can give to pay women less than men. Schaeffer wrote that she worries that will make employers less flexible.
"While Democrats frame this in terms of 'protecting' women, they overlook the fact that women, and their families, benefit tremendously from a flexible work environment," Schaeffer wrote. "For instance, some women may choose to accept a lower salary if it means they have the ability to work part-time, flexible hours or from home."
Although the bill may have little chance of passing, its failure gives Democrats a chance to revive their claim that Republicans have declared a "war on women."
The story line erupted this spring over two issues: various Republican-led state measures to make it more difficult to obtain an abortion and in a fight over whether religious-affiliated institutions must follow a federal rule and cover the cost of birth control. Democrats have drawn the ire of women, too, particularly when strategist Hilary Rosen said Ann Romney, who raised five sons, had "never worked a day in her life."
Solid proof required
Employers often use suggestions that women may be more dedicated to their families than work to justify paying women less, Amlong said. They've also heard that men have families to support financially, that they won't work for less and that women don't negotiate salaries as well.
Amlong and her husband, William, are partners in a firm that specializes in discrimination, harassment and other civil rights cases. William Amlong took the case of a Boca Raton ocean lifeguard to the U.S. Supreme Court, forcing the city to take responsibility for not protecting her from sexual harassment by her supervisors.
An equal-pay case can cost $250,000 to prepare, the firm said. Often, clients don't have extra cash, so the Amlongs take some cases on contingency.
When they win, the losing party must pay their bills. But to take that risk, they have to have solid proof of discrimination.
The Paycheck Fairness Act could make that proof easier to gather. It also would remove caps on damages for gender pay discrimination cases.
"What needs to be done is that more women need to come forward and say, 'I'm not going to accept this.' More lawyers need to file more lawsuits," William Amlong said.
"And you correct this one woman at a time."