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Gillibrand pushing equal pay legislation

Working women in Erie County earn an estimated $114 a week less than their male counterparts, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand said Tuesday as she began a push for legislation that aims to force employers to offer equal pay for equal work.

Citing 2011 statistics provided by the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said women earn an average of 14.6 percent less than men.

That means that, depending on overall income levels in individual counties across the state, a woman's paycheck is likely to range anywhere from $83 to $240 a week less than a man's, with rural Yates County at the low end of that range and Manhattan at the top.

Though a federal law is already in place that aims to end sexism via paycheck, Gillibrand said those numbers prove that Congress needs to do more.

During travels across the state in her three years as a U.S. senator, "I've heard from countless women and mothers who for all their hard work, all their talents, all their experience, are not getting the paycheck they've earned and the one that they deserve," she said.

Gillibrand, who has made family issues a hallmark of her tenure in the Senate, said that's particularly important because more and more families are counting on a woman's pay to provide at least part -- and often most -- of their income.

In Erie County, for example, the 2010 census showed that 29,129 families depended entirely on a mother's income, while 38,980 depended at least in part on a mother's income.

Statewide, "more than 40 percent of New York families are relying on an unfair paycheck to meet their needs, and it's just not right," Gillibrand said. Congress has already tried to address the pay gap.

It first banned sex discrimination in wages in 1963. And in wake of a later Supreme Court decision that made wage discrimination lawsuits harder to file, Congress in 2009 passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which dramatically eased the statute of limitations for filing wage discrimination lawsuits.

Nevertheless, "big corporations can still take advantage of an array of loopholes to pay women below value, and we have to take action," Gillibrand said. To that end, she is pushing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which the Senate will take up in June. Specifically, the legislation would:

*Force employers who get sued for wage discrimination to prove that the wage gap is not sex-based, is job-related and necessary for the business.

*Allow plaintiffs in wage discrimination lawsuits to win punitive and compensatory damages; under current law, plaintiffs can only win back pay or, in some cases, double back pay.

*Prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who discuss or disclose salary information with their colleagues.

*Improve data collection and training for employers while creating a grant program to help improve women's negotiation skills.

Versions of that bill have been kicking around for years, but Republican support for it has winnowed from meager to non-existent. None of the bill's 35 Senate co-sponsors are Republicans, which could bode trouble for the legislation when it reaches the floor.

Some Republicans argue that the pay gap that Gillibrand and other Democrats cite is not the result of discrimination, but the result of the different career choices men and women tend to make.

"There are lots of other reasons men might earn more than women, including differences in education, experience and job tenure," Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a 2010 op-ed piece in the New York Times.

But Gillibrand argued that women -- and the entire economy -- would be better off if the Paycheck Fairness Act were to pass. " when women are shortchanged at work, it makes their family less secure and our entire economy less secure," she said.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com