Equal pay for women: How to know when to take legal action

Equal pay for women: How to know when to take legal action

WEST PALM BEACH, FL (WFLX) - Equal pay has been a big topic lately. Many women have felt they've been treated unfairly at work at some point or another, but how can you tell when that rises to the legal action of illegal discrimination?

"There are two primary federal laws we are talking about. The Equal Pay Act which is exactly what it says. It requires that men and women be paid equal rates for similar or the same positions. Then, you have Title VII under the Civil Rights Act. It is much broader, and actually encompasses equal pay, too. But Title VII also prohibits other forms of workplace discrimination such as in promotions, hiring, firing, and wages and can be based on race, religion, national origin, or gender," said lifestyle lawyer Shari O.

Title VII only covers employers with 15 or more employees. But, in most cases, if someone has a claim against their employer, claims are filed under both the Equal Pay Act and Title VII.

If you think you've been discriminated against, how can you be sure? "That's actually a very important distinction to understand. Because it only matters if you can prove it, and if it meets certain technical legal requirements or 'elements.'"

To prove discrimination under the Equal Pay Act, you need to prove:

  1. Man and woman
  2. Working in same place and doing substantially the same job or work (considered equal when require equal levels of skill, effort, responsibility, and are done under similar working conditions at the same general work site)
  3. Receiving unequal pay. The employee has the burden of proof. Then, the burden shifts to the employer to disprove any of those three elements. Pay disparity can be justified based on "affirmative defenses" including seniority, a merit system, a system measuring quantity or quality of work, or any reason other than gender. The statue of limitations is two years for non willful violations and three years for willful. Claims Under Title VII, discrimination needs to be intentional, but proving intent can be tough. However, Title VII allows damages for pain and suffering while EPA claims do not. Title VII claims must be filed within 180 days of receipt of the last paycheck reflecting pay disparity (as a result of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009) and must be filed with the EEOC first in order to obtain a "right to sue" letter before suing in federal court. After that, you have 90 days to file a lawsuit.

The EEOC processes about 100,000 discrimination and retaliation charges a year, and files almost 300 law suits. But know that EEOC resources are very tight, so it is unlikely that the EEOC will do much to help you.

The EEOC has a free online assessment tool. Cases take six to nine months to investigate and most wind up finding insufficient evidence for discrimination because proving discrimination is so tough. But you can request a mediation, and about 65 percent of those wind up in some form of resolution.

If you want to sue, it's likely you will need to hire your own lawyer; many lawyers will take on solid cases on a contingency fee basis.

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