Know Your Rights: The Equal Pay Act

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) is a federal law that prohibits pay discrimination on the basis of sex.

Despite the passage of the this law more than a half a century ago, women still do not take home wages equal to those of their male peers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency charged with enforcing this and other employment discrimination laws. EPA amended the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

No employer … shall discriminate, within any establishment in which such employees are employed, between employees on the basis of sex by paying wages to employees in such establishment at a rate less than the rate at which he pays wages to employees of the opposite sex in such establishment for equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions, except where such payment is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex.

To bring a claim under the EPA, an employee must show that a female employee and a male employee are receiving different wages for performing substantially equal work in the same establishment and under similar working conditions. Substantially equal work does not require identical job titles; rather it is interpreted as work requiring substantially equal levels of skill, effort, and responsibility.The EPA imposes strict liability on the employer, so whether or not the employer intended to engage in wage discrimination on the basis of gender does not matter. To avoid liability, the employer must prove that wages are set pursuant to one of the four statutory defenses allowed under the EPA — a seniority system, a merit system, a system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production, or on a factor other than sex.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is broader in scope than the EPA. While the EPA only prohibits discrimination based on sex regarding wages, Title VII bars many forms of employment discrimination (including, for example, discrimination in hiring, firing, and promotions as well as in pay).Title VII also protects classes in addition to sex (including race, color, religion, and national origin). Some, but not all, of the other differences between the statutes relate to timing and coverage. Title VII has a different statute of limitations and does not require that the jobs in question be substantially equal, unlike the EPA. Title VII does not apply to employees who work for an employer with fewer than 15 employees, while virtually all employers are covered under the EPA.

If you have been paid unfairly because of your sex, you can file a claim under either law. In fact, many employees file claims under both the EPA and Title VII. There are several reasons you might choose to file under the EPA or to include both EPA and Title VII claims. For example, under the EPA you do not have to prove that an employer intentionally discriminated against you and you do not need to go to the EEOC before you file an EPA claim. Under Title VII, the monies you might collect if you prevail on your case could include additional categories of damages.The laws are technical and complicated, and it is important not to waive your rights under either statute. So if you think you do want to bring an employment discrimination claim, make sure to discuss your options with an attorney or the EEOC first.

An employee filing an EPA claim may go directly to court and is not required to file an EEOC charge beforehand, which would be required for a Title VII claim. The time limit for filing an EPA charge is within two years of the alleged unlawful compensation practice or, in the case of a willful violation, within three years. Under Title VII, in general, you need to file a charge within 180 calendar days from the day the discrimination took place (for example, your last paycheck) in order to preserve your legal rights. The deadline is extended to 300 calendar days if a state or local agency enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis.

You are still able to file a charge within these limitations, even if you do not work for the offending employer anymore. Visit the EEOC’s website for full instructions on filing a charge.

Figuring out how much time you have to file a charge is complicated and there are pros and cons of filing a charge or proceeding directly to court. You do not need to hire a lawyer to file a charge, although it is always best to discuss your options with an attorney or the EEOC first.

  1. Record the discriminatory pay practices you believe are taking place. Keep copies of your salary records, pay stubs, and any other wage-related information.
  2. If you are comfortable, talk to your employer or human resources department. Your company may have an EEO officer or other ways for you to file a complaint. For instance, some companies offer mediation or other tools to resolve problems. Consult your employee handbook for procedures.
  3. Keep doing a good job and keep a record of your work. Keep copies at home of your job evaluations and any letters or memos that show that you are performing well at work.
  4. Seek support from friends and family. Discrimination at work is a difficult thing to face alone, and the process of fighting discrimination can be very stressful.

Even if you aren’t ready to file a discrimination charge, you can always contact the EEOC to speak with a counselor about your legal rights. The EEOC may investigate your claim and/or offer mediation services to help resolve any issues. Additionally, many states have enacted their own laws on pay equity, and most state and local governments have a human rights or civil rights office that can help. Find out whether your state has an equal pay law and check out which provisions are included. Then learn more about how your state stacks up.