By Chad E. Willits

Millions of Americans celebrated as the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team won its historic fourth FIFA World Cup Championship earlier this month. While that decisive victory successfully ended the Team’s battles on the pitch, its fight for equal pay is just kicking off.  

In March of this year, 28 members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (“WNT”) – including the entire World Cup roster – filed a federal class action lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for gender discrimination and unequal pay. 

The suit alleges that the Men’s and Women’s National Teams perform essentially the same job responsibilities and participate in similar international competitions, yet female players have consistently been paid less than their male counterparts. For example, the suit contends that if the Men’s and Women’s Teams won the 20 non-tournament games they are contractually obligated to play, female National Team players would earn a maximum of $99,000 per player, while male National Team players would earn well over twice as much – an average of $263,320 each.            

According to the Wall Street Journal, the WNT and the Federation have agreed to try to settle the lawsuit through Mediation – a voluntary process designed to reach an agreed resolution. No specific date has yet been announced and the suit is effectively on hold in the meantime, but it is certain to proceed if the Mediation is unsuccessful. 

The fanfare from the WNT’s dominating World Cup victory and the publicity surrounding its lawsuit are casting a brighter spotlight on equal pay issues in general, increasing awareness for lawmakers and businesses alike. 

The federal Equal Pay Act has required equal pay for work requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility since 1963, but a significant pay gap between men and women has persisted nevertheless. Despite the fact that women comprise half of the U.S. workforce, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that for every dollar earned by a man, women are paid just 82 cents. Many sources estimate that figure is even lower for African-American and Latina women. In addition to a negative impact on the economy in general, this disparity can also cost employers dearly if talented women leave due to unfair treatment or limited advancement opportunities.  

State and local lawmakers are not waiting on the sidelines for the U.S. Congress to remedy this situation. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (“SHRM”), legislatures in at least 30 States have wage-gap bills on the agenda for 2019. 

Varying state law proposals use different strategies to attack this problem, including banning requests for salary history in the application and hiring process, mandating pay data reporting to increase transparency, and safe harbors and reduced penalties to encourage voluntary proactive corrections. At least three States and larger cities like New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco have already banned requests for salary history, and 16 other States are considering similar proposals. This increasing patchwork of state and local regulation presents a significant challenge for companies who conduct business in multiple jurisdictions.  

Ohio is no exception to this trend. The Ohio Civil Rights Act has long prohibited gender discrimination in the terms, conditions, and privileges of employment – certainly including pay. As an additional measure, Representatives in the Ohio House introduced the Ohio Equal Pay Act in April of this year. According to a press release from the Bill’s sponsors, if enacted the Ohio EPA would prohibit “gag” orders that prevent employees from discussing salaries and compensation; require vendors doing business with the State to obtain an Equal Pay Certificate certifying that female employees are provided equal opportunities for career advancement; and require government entities to evaluate their workers’ pay scales to ensure compensation is based on skills, responsibilities, and working conditions. The Bill has been assigned to the Ohio House Commerce and Labor Committee.  

Private companies are also taking steps to identify and address these inequities. A recent SHRM survey indicates that approximately 60% of U.S. companies are currently working to resolve inequitable pay practices. Specific examples include voluntary internal compensation audits, examining practices of soliciting salary history, and updating job descriptions and establishing more uniform corresponding salary ranges.  

The WNT’s on-field success places the Team in a strong position to achieve balanced pay for current and future WNT athletes. Equal pay advocates are hopeful those victories will also lead to improved compensation for other women in the workforce. At a minimum, the WNT’s well-deserved notoriety is highly likely to keep this issue in the public spotlight and continue to drive change at the state and local levels. 

For additional information or guidance on these or other employment compensation issues, contact one of Reminger’s employment practices attorneys. 

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