Unfair pay is arguably one of the most damaging forms of workplace discrimination. Despite the laws in place to protect you, employers use loopholes and underpay workers doing the same job as the workers they’re paying fairly.
If you feel that you’ve been a victim of this kind of discrimination, you may ask yourself whether you can take legal action for unfair pay. Read on to review the laws in place to protect you, your rights, and what you can do to receive compensation.
Unfair pay occurs when an employer does not compensate an employee fairly for their work. Unfair pay does not have to occur under the pretense of discrimination, but it often does. The other forms of unfair pay can include withholding overtime pay, failing to pay the mandated minimum wage, and wage theft. Laws from the local to federal levels prohibit the act of unfair pay and wage discrimination, but that doesn’t stop all employers from engaging in this activity.
There are many protected categories that an employer must not discriminate against, including those of a particular race, age, sexual orientation, gender, or ability.
State and local laws vary, but federal laws protect people across the United States. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that made it illegal for an employer of 15 or more employees to discriminate in any form based on religion, race, or disability. In 2020, the Supreme Court prohibited employee discrimination based on sexuality, extending Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to those in the LGBTQIA+ community.
In addition, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 prohibits discrimination based on gender and states that the employer must pay the same amount as coworkers of the “opposite sex.” However, the jobs between which the court is comparing pay do not have to be identical, but they must be equal in skill, effort, and responsibility. The job titles themselves do not apply in this comparison.
These federal laws also apply to all commonwealth and territories of the United States.
Despite the federal laws in place, there are some exceptions and loopholes employers will use to try and “legally” underpay you. Under Title VII, employers are allowed to discriminate against workers that do not operate in accordance with their religious beliefs. Companies in some states use this caveat to fire and underpay employees.
Title VII also does not apply to any Tribal Nations. However, employers operating on tribal land with 15 or more employees must comply with Title VII.
Under the Equal Pay Act, there are four exceptions that employers use as pay difference justification: seniority, merit, incentive systems, and factors other than gender. In order to uphold this defense, a company must predetermine the criteria that measure these systems, communicate these systems to all employees, and use the system consistently with all employees.
However, there are still factors other than gender that can be used to justify a difference in pay. For example, if the factor applies to all genders, furthers or is beneficial to the employer’s business, and the employee was aware of these factors, then the employer can use that to justify the difference in pay.
If you believe that you are a victim of an Equal Pay Act violation, you can file a claim with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), but you do not have to. However, you must file the complaint within the first two years after the alleged violation.
You also have the legal right to complain directly to your employer about pay discrimination. However, if you plan on taking legal action, it is advisable not to do so. Your employer might become aware of you filing a complaint and tamper with critical evidence before you have the chance to gather it.
If you choose to file a Title VII claim, the statute of limitations is within 180 calendar days from the day the alleged violation took place. You can immediately hire a lawyer and go to court directly for a civil suit. However, it is important to remember that any civil suit can turn into a criminal case if the investigative process reveals evidence of a crime.
If you decide to file a lawsuit, there are a few steps you should take as soon as possible. First, you should review your contract and your employer’s policies. Review these documents for policies related to discrimination, compensation, and other policies relevant to your wage. In addition, find out your company’s complaint procedures and deadlines.
Next, you’ll need to gather a paper trail to compile proof. This documentation should include documents about the responsibilities and wages of your coworkers, pay stubs, wage comparisons to other jobs in the same field, any digital correspondence, and witness testimonies. Do not keep this evidence at your job, but rather in a safe place at home or in a separate drive. Continue to document everything you can if you continue to work there.
Afterward, you can choose to report to your boss, HR, or your union. You can also file a complaint in court or with the government. It is important to note that choosing these avenues does not extend the deadline for filing a complaint with a government agency or court.
If you file a complaint with your boss or HR department, it is best to do so in writing so you can have an exact copy of the correspondence. If you’re part of a union, you can use your union’s grievance procedure or take collective action with a meeting or petition.
If you choose to file a complaint with the EEOC under the Equal Pay Act or Title VII, check your state’s deadline. You can also go directly to court if you file a complaint under either of these acts. However, if you choose to file a lawsuit under Title VII, then you must first file a charge with a state or government agency to get a “right to sue.” The major difference between filing through the EEOC and going directly to court is that the EEOC is not doing the investigation process for you.
There are a few things that could happen as a result of a successful case. You may get your job back if the business initially fired you due to your complaint, or your employer may have to change their policies and practices to comply with the law.
In terms of monetary compensation, you may receive payment for emotional or physical damage. In addition, you can receive “back pay,” which is the money you could have earned if your employer had not discriminated against you. Every case is different, and the outcome of the case is dependent upon many factors.
It is essential to understand that you can take legal action for unfair pay. Take your power back and get the compensation you deserve. If you feel that you’ve been the victim of unfair pay or wage discrimination, contact an equal pay attorney to get the representation you need.