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Facts About Equal Pay and Compensation Discrimination

The right of employees to be free from discrimination in their compensation is protected under several federal laws, including the following enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The law against compensation discrimination includes all payments made to or on behalf employees as remuneration for employment. All forms of compensation are covered, including salary, overtime pay, bonuses, stock options, profit sharing and bonus plans, life insurance, vacation and holiday pay, cleaning or gasoline allowances, hotel accommodations, reimbursement for travel expenses, and benefits.

Equal Pay Act

The Equal Pay Act requires that men and women be given equal pay for equal work in the same establishment. The jobs need not be identical, but they must be substantially equal. It is job content, not job titles, that determines whether jobs are substantially equal. Specifically, the EPA provides that employers may not pay unequal wages to men and women who perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort and responsibility, and that are performed under similar working conditions within the same establishment. Each of these factors is summarized below:

  • Skill

    Measured by factors such as the experience, ability, education, and training required to perform the job. The issue is what skills are required for the job, not what skills the individual employees may have. For example, two bookkeeping jobs could be considered equal under the EPA even if one of the job holders has a master’s degree in physics, since that degree would not be required for the job.

  • Effort

    The amount of physical or mental exertion needed to perform the job. For example, suppose that men and women work side by side on a line assembling machine parts. The person at the end of the line must also lift the assembled product as he or she completes the work and place it on a board. That job requires more effort than the other assembly line jobs if the extra effort of lifting the assembled product off the line is substantial and is a regular part of the job. As a result, it would not be a violation to pay that person more, regardless of whether the job is held by a man or a woman.

  • Responsibility

    The degree of accountability required in performing the job. For example, a salesperson who is delegated the duty of determining whether to accept customers’ personal checks has more responsibility than other salespeople. On the other hand, a minor difference in responsibility, such as turning out the lights at the end of the day, would not justify a pay differential.

  • Working Conditions

    This encompasses two factors: (1) physical surroundings like temperature, fumes, and ventilation; and (2) hazards.

  • Establishment

    The prohibition against compensation discrimination under the EPA applies only to jobs within an establishment. An establishment is a distinct physical place of business rather than an entire business or enterprise consisting of several places of business. In some circumstances, physically separate places of business may be treated as one establishment. For example, if a central administrative unit hires employees, sets their compensation, and assigns them to separate work locations, the separate work sites can be considered part of one establishment.

Pay differentials are permitted when they are based on seniority, merit, quantity or quality of production, or a factor other than sex. These are known as “affirmative defenses” and it is the employer’s burden to prove that they apply.

In correcting a pay differential, no employee’s pay may be reduced. Instead, the pay of the lower paid employee(s) must be increased.

Title VII, ADEA, and ADA

Title VII, the ADEA, and the ADA prohibit compensation discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability. Unlike the EPA, there is no requirement that the claimant’s job be substantially equal to that of a higher paid person outside the claimant’s protected class, nor do these statutes require the claimant to work in the same establishment as a comparator.

Compensation discrimination under Title VII, the ADEA, or the ADA can occur in a variety of forms. For example:

  • An employer pays an employee with a disability less than similarly situated employees without disabilities and the employer’s explanation (if any) does not satisfactorily account for the differential.
  • An employer sets the compensation for jobs predominately held by, for example, women or African-Americans below that suggested by the employer’s job evaluation study, while the pay for jobs predominately held by men or whites is consistent with the level suggested by the job evaluation study.
  • An employer maintains a neutral compensation policy or practice that has an adverse impact on employees in a protected class and cannot be justified as job-related and consistent with business necessity. For example, if an employer provides extra compensation to employees who are the “head of household,” i.e., married with dependents and the primary financial contributor to the household, the practice may have an unlawful disparate impact on women.

It is also unlawful to retaliate against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on compensation or for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation under Title VII, ADEA, ADA or the Equal Pay Act.