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Wage Discrimination Claims Under the Equal Pay Act

"Equal work, equal pay" typed on a yellowed sheet of paper.

Make sure you know your rights and your legal options if they're violated

Since the Equal Pay Act (EPA) was signed into law in 1963, equal pay for equal work has been the legal standard in the United States. It's illegal under the EPA for employers to pay men and women differently for the same work on the basis of sex. But like all employment protections, the EPA isn't self-enforcing; you need to know your rights and speak up if you suspect they're being violated.

While the Equal Pay Act has some similarities with other anti-discrimination laws, it also works differently in important ways. Here's what Ohio employees need to know about their rights under the Equal Pay Act.

What's the definition of equal pay?

The terms of the Equal Pay Act take all of your compensation into account. That includes not only your base salary or hourly wage, but also bonuses, overtime, stock options, profit sharing, travel allowances, retirement, benefits, vacation pay, and any other parts of your compensation package.

What's the definition of equal work?

The Equal Pay Act requires employers to pay the same wage for "substantially equal" jobs. This determination isn't based on job title or job description, but rather on actual day-to-day job duties. As most employees know, there are often discrepancies between your job on paper and your job in practice; if you and a coworker have different titles but the same day-to-day responsibilities, then that is "substantially equal" work as far as the EPA is concerned.

Are there legitimate reasons to pay differently for the same work?

Yes, the Equal Pay Act allows employers to pay different wages for the same work as long as they have a legitimate, non-sex-based reason for the disparity. Some legitimate reasons include:

  • Merit
  • Incentives
  • Seniority
  • Shift differential
  • Experience, education, or credentials

That said, it's the employer's responsibility to prove that they had a bona fide system to determine pay that isn't based on sex. For example, if your employer gives merit-based raises, they need to demonstrate that there is an actual, bona fide merit system to earn those raises instead of just a pretext for discrimination on the basis of sex. Likewise, if employees are paid differently based on shift differential, the employer needs to give men and women equal opportunity to work the higher-paying shifts.

What are employers' responsibilities under the Equal Pay Act?

Employers are responsible for proactively evaluating their salary structure for gender disparities and addressing those disparities. "We didn't intend to pay men more than women" is not an excuse; intent is irrelevant to the definition of wage discrimination. "The men negotiated for more" is also not an excuse.

The Equal Pay Act also specifies that employers cannot resolve a disparity by reducing salaries for the higher-paid gender.

It's important to note that, unlike most other anti-discrimination laws, there is no legal minimum number of employees to be covered under the Equal Pay Act. Virtually all employees in the United States are protected by the EPA.

What can you pursue in an Equal Pay Act claim?

There are two forms of legal recourse you can pursue under the Equal Pay Act: financial compensation and equitable relief. You can pursue compensation for the difference between your pay and your opposite-sex coworker's pay, plus "liquid damages" equal to the same amount. You can also pursue re-hiring, reinstatement, a raise or promotion, and reasonable attorney's fees and costs.

Notably, under the EPA, you are allowed to proceed directly to filing a lawsuit in federal court, whereas other types of discrimination cases usually require charges to be filed with the EEOC first.

Depending on the circumstances, you may have an Equal Pay Act claim, a sex discrimination claim under another federal or state law, or both. The only way to know your rights and options is to speak to an experienced employment law attorney. If you suspect you are a victim of wage discrimination, contact us today for a free, confidential case evaluation.

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