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How Wage Discrimination Claims Under the Equal Pay Act Work

Balance showing male and female worker with employee's hands behind.

Breaking down your rights to equal pay for equal work

Enacted in 1963, the Equal Pay Act (EPA) is a federal law that requires employers to pay men and women equally for the same work. Today, the EPA is just one of several federal and state laws that prohibit discrimination in employment, but there are several unique aspects of how the EPA works that can affect your rights if you are a victim of wage discrimination. Here’s what West Virginia employees need to know.

What are the criteria to have an Equal Pay Act claim?

The first thing to know about the Equal Pay Act is that unlike other anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, there is no minimum number of employees for an employer to be covered by the EPA. Virtually all employers in the United States are required to comply with the terms of the Equal Pay Act.

Fundamentally, the Equal Pay Act states that employers must pay men and women the same wage for “substantially equal” work. The jobs need not be identical, and the job titles and job descriptions need not be the same. Rather, the courts look at each employee’s actual job duties to determine whether the jobs in question are “substantially equal” and need to be paid the same. If your coworker has a more senior title or extra responsibilities on paper, but the real-world content of your job is the same, then the Equal Pay Act applies.

Intent is largely irrelevant — Equal Pay Act claims are all about the effect of the employer’s salary structure. (However, intentional violations can extend the legal deadlines to file a claim.)

In addition, the EPA applies to all forms of compensation, not merely your base salary or hourly wage. Fringe benefits such as overtime, bonuses, travel allowances, stock options, life insurance, retirement, benefits, profit sharing, commissions, and more are also taken into account.

Finally, the Equal Pay Act stipulates that if there is a disparity in pay between men and women, the employer may not reduce the wages of the higher-paid gender to resolve the disparity. They need to increase the other gender’s pay instead.

Exceptions to the equal pay standard

There are a few legitimate, non-sex-based reasons why employers may pay men and women differently for the same work, including:

  • A bona fide merit-based system.
  • A seniority system.
  • An incentive system.
  • Shift differentials (as long as both men and women have the same opportunity to work the higher-paid shifts).
  • Differences in experience or education (e.g., an advanced degree or professional certification).

However, the onus is on the employer to prove and document that they have a legitimate exception.

Your legal recourse under the Equal Pay Act

Another key difference between the Equal Pay Act and other anti-discrimination laws is that EPA claims can be brought directly to federal court, whereas many other types of discrimination claims require the employee to file an EEOC charge first.

A successful EPA claim can pursue:

  • Compensation for the gap in wages (for instance, if you were paid $25 per hour and your coworker was paid $30, you can get $5 per hour worked), plus an equal amount of cash damages.
  • Re-hiring or reinstatement, if you were fired or demoted.
  • A promotion or raise in your salary or hourly wage.
  • Reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.

Depending on the circumstances, you may have a wage discrimination claim under the Equal Pay Act and a gender discrimination claim under the federal Civil Rights Act or the West Virginia Human Rights Act. The criteria to have discrimination claims under those laws are different from the criteria for the Equal Pay Act, but many situations qualify for more than one. The legal process and deadlines are also different depending on which laws were violated.

That’s why your first step should be to speak with an experienced employment lawyer. We can listen to your story and explain your legal options under both state and federal law. If you believe you are a victim of wage discrimination in violation of the Equal Pay Act, contact Klie Law Offices today for a free case evaluation.

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