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Equal Pay Day constitutes 'bait and switch'

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There's an old sales trick called the bait-and-switch: You advertise one thing to draw customers in, and then attempt to sell them something different and more expensive.

That's what America faced April 8 when a coalition of unions and a group of feminists pushed Equal Pay Day, designed to highlight the alleged injustice that women make 74 percent of men's wages

The bait of Equal Pay Day is "equal pay for equal work." In 1999, who doesn't think that people with the same education and experience doing the same job ought to be paid the same amount? Though there may be a few bad actors, let's face facts: It's not only been the right thing to do, it's been the law of the land for the past 35 years, longer than many of today's workers and employers have been in the work force.

Almost everybody agrees with the reasonable idea that women and men with the same experience doing the same job should be paid the same. But here's the switch. The masterminds behind Equal Pay Day really want you to buy into a truly outrageous gambit: allowing the U.S. Department of Labor to evaluate the "comparable worth" of different jobs, give agency bureaucrats the power to examine the pay systems of every American employer and permit them to mandate compensation in the private sector.

They also want to allow unlimited punitive and compensatory damages that would result in a flood of new employment lawsuits. That's what their Paycheck Fairness Act would do.

In fact, anybody can already sue an employer under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and, among other things, get punitive and compensatory damages that are capped depending on the size of the business.

Removing these caps likely wouldn't help a woman seeking redress for a legitimate problem in court. It would, however, benefit the lawyers, many of whom ask for as much as 30 percent to 50 percent of the final take.

The "wage gap" number itself is highly misleading, lumping together people of all ages and backgrounds. Overwhelmingly, the gap is due to objective factors such as less experience in the work force.

While it is a sensitive issue, as Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Christine Stolba note in their comprehensive study, "Women's Figures An Illustrated Guide to the Economic Progress of Women in America," "Many women, planning to interrupt their careers at some point in the future to have children, choose fields where the job flexibility is high, salaries are lower and job skills deteriorate at a slower rate than others."

Most important, they also point out that women in their 20s and 30s who have never had children make virtually the same amount as their male counterparts.

Besides, it is a ludicrous notion indeed that profit-making businesses including the 7.7 million woman-owned businesses would willingly pay a one-third premium simply to hire male workers. It reflects a profound lack of understanding about the realities of running a business in a free market economy. If women workers really came that cheap, then everybody would have an all-female work force in order to stay competitive.

America's flexible labor markets have enabled us to avoid the kind of rigidity and stagnation indicative of European economies, and it's been a major reason why American business is so successful.

The government intervention in the economy that the Paycheck Fairness Act would mandate represents the worst kind of statist central planning, as well as inspiring a new deluge of employment lawsuits. Too bad there is no Better Business Bureau for complaints about fraudulent social policies.

(Thomas J. Donohue is president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.)

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