Equal pay for women is a concept that has been around for a long time. It was during World War I that women were first guaranteed pay equity in the form of regulations enforced by the War Labor Board of 1918. The Board's equal pay policy required manufacturers, who put women on the payroll while male employees were serving in the military, to pay those women the same wages that were paid to the men. The National War Labor Board continued that trend through World War II. Shortly after the war, states began enacting statutes that required employers to pay female workers the same wage rates for male workers for work that was either “equal” or “comparable” to the work of men. The distinction between “equal work” and “comparable work” in these statutes makes a crucial difference in the standard of proof, as will be discussed below. Since 1949, Maine has had an equal pay statute that prohibits employers from discriminating between employees on the basis of sex by paying wages at a rate less than the rate paid to the opposite sex for “equal work,” and since 1965 for “comparable work.” As noted above, several states have similar pay-equity laws, either requiring women to be paid equally for “equal work” or for “comparable work.” Many of these statutes date back to the 1940s and 1950s. Michigan's statute, which makes payment of women at a wage less than “similarly employed” men a misdemeanor, dates back to 1931. In a 1940 case upholding the constitutionality of the statute, the Michigan Supreme Court noted: “[i]t is a matter of common knowledge that there are great numbers of women employed in manufacturing and that many employers pay their women employees less than they pay their men employees for identical work.” Passage of the federal Equal Pay Act in 1963 provided further remedy for women workers. The federal statute's requirement that the work be equal in nature makes proving a case under the federal scheme a more difficult undertaking than in Maine and in the other states where the “comparable work” standard provides a less stringent burden of proof. Even with the lower standard of proof, however, women do not use these state statutes to bring pay-equity claims. In Maine, for example, in the thirty-seven years that the comparable work standard has been a part of the statute, there has not been a single reported case discussing a claim brought pursuant to the statute. In 2001, Maine's Bureau of Labor Standards adopted a set of rules that could enhance enforcement of the equal pay statute. The introduction of an administrative claims process, as well as the use of an employer's self-audit to encourage voluntary compliance, may lead to greater enforcement of the law. Maine could, in fact, lead the way for other states to enforce their pay-equity laws.
Elizabeth J. Wyman Esq.,
The Unenforced Promise of Equal Pay Acts: A National Problem and Possible Solution From Maine,
Me. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol55/iss1/4