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Column: Debate about 'Paycheck Fairness' is more about politics


ST. PAUL — I support equal pay for equal work. But the current debate in Washington over the proposed Paycheck Fairness Act seems more a political ploy by Democrat lawmakers to distract attention away from Washington’s failing economic record than a needed reform.

It is already illegal for employers to pay women less than men for the same work. The Equal Pay Act was signed by President Kennedy after passing Congress almost unanimously (the nine “No” votes were cast by Democrats). The act authorizes lawsuits, the payment of damages and the granting of equitable relief (from reinstatement all the way to permanent injunctions against illegal practices and policies). In fact, an offender can face imprisonment of up to six months for continued violations.

The law is already on the side of protecting women against workplace discrimination; we have the power to sue for damages in federal or state court, or seek investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Yet we keep hearing the claim that women only earn 77 percent of the wages paid to men. This number is misleading. In fact, even the very liberal online magazine Slate went so far as to call it a lie. The number fails to take into consideration the differences among employees in job classes, experience, education, hours, part-time status or even the relative dangers of the positions. According to experts Claudia Goldin and Laurence Katz, both Harvard economists, the justifiable and non-discriminatory reasons for the differences almost entirely explain the gap.

While I practiced law, I was fortunate to have the option to take time off, work part-time and have flexible hours to spend time with my small children. My attorney husband worked full-time and earned more than I did. Securing a job with workplace flexibility remains an important goal for many women. Just look at the factors we all consider in evaluating the 10 Best Companies to Work for Women: flexible hours, part-time opportunities, family leave, sick leave to care for children and parents, and the opportunity to return to work after leaving to have children.

We should focus our efforts on the unacceptable fact that 4.7 million women are unemployed. Sadly, that number grew by 180,000 just last month. Women are struggling to balance their family budget in the face of rising food, fuel and healthcare costs.

We all pay more in taxes than we do for food, clothing and housing combined. Women are struggling on our own behalf, or for our children, to gain access to affordable educational opportunities. And we all are wrestling with the disastrous ramifications of ObamaCare, and women control two-thirds of the health insurance sector of the economy. (Women make the majority of family decisions about healthcare and we also disproportionately work in the healthcare field — my daughter included.)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. median family income has dropped from $65,000 in 2008 to $60,000 in 2012. Clearly, we are not better off than when President Obama and Sen. Al Franken were elected. We are far and measurably worse off. No effort to change the subject, distract, or manipulate us should stand in our way of insisting that we hold Washington accountable for these failures and the costs to women and our families.

State Sen. Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen) is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by incumbent Al Franken.