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“A condition we can ill afford”: Debating the Equal Pay Act of 1963

Recommendations by the National War Labor Board during World War II to pay male and female workers equal wages yielded few changes in the gender wage gap. Women continued to receive less money for comparable work, and into the 1960s want ads characterized jobs as “male” or “female” with resulting salary differences based on gender. The Equal Pay Act (EPA) made it illegal to pay men and women differently for similar work. Although the EPA was passed in 1963, it was debated in workplaces and courtrooms for decades thereafter. In this Senate hearing testimony, union leader Murray Plopper argued that the “race against the Communist bloc of nations” demanded an end to gender discrimination. Plopper used specific examples of retail clerks’ working conditions and earnings to argue for passage of the law. He also noted that “women work because they must” and challenged the provisions of the law that would exempt small stores.

Statement of Murray Plopper, International Third Vice President and Executive Assistant to the President of Retail Clerks International Association

In this particular situation, to which your committee has addressed itself, the manpower needs of the country are deeply affected. Yet the archaic, out-moded policies of discrimination in wages based on sex mean a regrettable waste of human resources and consequently represent an impediment to economic growth.

This is a condition we can ill afford at a time when the urgent problems of the world demand that we bend every effort to utilize our resources to the fullest degree possible. Poor use of manpower and womanpower pose handicaps in our race against the Communist bloc of nations. When war struck in 1941, we learned painfully how to employ our capabilities and our manpower resources. Ought we not learn from that costly lesson that in peacetime too we need to use our resources effectively?

Discrimination in pay based merely on whether one is a woman or a man is a serious problem, virtually as serious as that of the quality of our educational accomplishments. In fact, we seek to educate our populace and then allow people to waste their abilities by accepting a wage policy that simply serves to depress their position in the work force. Thus a double waste is the outcome.

Women are an important factor in the labor force today. This statement is incontestable. Our economy cannot function at its present levels without the direct participation of women in economic activity. The urban explosion, the growth of suburbia, changes in technology, the rise of government as an employer, wars, depressions, changes in our social values, the lengthened span of life have all contributed to the revolution in the work pattern now pursued by women. The fantastic spread of mechanical appliances in the home during the last 40 years, the development of a huge ready-to-wear clothing industry and the greater availability of domestic workers have freed women from work in the kitchen and have allowed them to seek jobs outside the home. Yet if women were not required in industry and trade, they would not be employed. The fact is that there is a need for women workers.

The idea that a woman is inferior to a man in certain jobs has long since been refuted by actual experience. We now recognize that the psychological differences between men and women stem from different expectations and cultural experiences rather than innate intelligence and ability. In fact we do know that there is little difference in general intelligence as between men and women. In certain psychological tests women do better than men on verbal and clerical aptitudes, while men do better on mechanical aptitudes. The differences however are slight and explained by cultural factors. (National Manpower Council, Womanpower New York, 1957, p. 228.) Yet unequal pay for equal work continues. In retailing, for example, management will seek to justify lower rates for women clerks on the ground that they are physically unable to do heavy stock work.

Now this may have been a factor 10 or 20 years ago, but it no longer reflects the true conditions of work in retailing today. In department stores, for example, all clerks are expected to do their own stock work, whether they be men or women. In supermarkets, the work in the backroom has been so mechanized and rationalized, with conveyor belts, palletized operations, and the like, that it no longer requires brute strength to do the job. There is substantially little difference between what a man and a woman now does in a supermarket. Yet management will seek to pay less to women than to men solely on grounds of sex.

. . . .

Approximately half the membership of our organization is comprised of women. They work in all sections of retailing and at all sorts of jobs. Women are found working in supermarkets, variety stores, department stores, discount houses, apparel shops, and drugstores. They work as salesclerks, checkout clerks, inventory clerks, and, of course, in offices. There are over 1,400,000 women salesworkers—about 440,000 more women than men. (Employment and Earnings, February 1962, Bureau of Labor Statistics). And we must add to the salesclerks another million women employed in nonselling occupations, giving a total of 2.4 million women in the retail industry. Too many of these, we know, are paid less for the same work that men do.

When we in the Retail Clerks International Association started to organize intensively in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s we found unequal pay for equal work to be an almost universal condition. Following the dictates of our constitution and our beliefs we fought to eliminate this condition. Our collective bargaining agreements all virtually provide for a single pay scale. There are remaining pockets of resistance, we must concede, as reflected in perhaps a fifth of the agreements we have on file at international headquarters. But most of these are to be found in small locals, serving small towns.

In about 20 years we have successfully eliminated unequal pay scales in a large part of retailing, at least that part which has been organized successfully. But this does not begin to reach the entire female workforce in retailing, 85 percent of which is still beyond the protective boundaries of a collective bargaining agreement. Hence we must support the proposed legislation embodied in S. 910.

Average hourly earnings of women in the retail field are consistently less than those of men. This was demonstrated in the June 1961 study of retailing made by the Bureau of Labor Statistics which showed that in supermarkets women averaged $1.52 an hour as compared with $1.77 an hour for men; in department stores the figures were $1.36 and $2.01 respectively for women and men; in variety stores $1.03 and $1.38; and in drugstores, $1.14 and $1.79.

It is sometimes said the retail wages and earnings are low because productivity in the industry is low. This is a complete fallacy. Productivity in retailing is higher than in the rest of the economy. Our studies, based on data obtained from the Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service, show that while output in retailing, as measured by value added, increased 62 percent from 1947 to 1960, manhours increased but 17 percent. This means a rise in productivity during that period of time of 38 percent, a rate of increase that was higher than in basic steel and many another industry.

The retail employee consequently has been producing and has been working quite hard at his job. All too often employers pursue a false tradition in dealing with their female employee. It is said that women prefer to work for a fixed salary rather than sell merchandise on a commission basis or it is said that women do not sell appliances as well as men. This, therefore, supposedly justifies a lower rate of pay for the same work. This is a false and shortsighted outlook. In fact it is well known that certain department stores will assign women salesclerks working on guarantees plus a small commission to “big ticket” floors, merely as a device to cut costs. The conclusion to which we in the Retail Clerks International Association came a long time ago, is that unequal pay for equal work is merely a device to reduce expenses, a reduction that in the long run serves to depress standards and injure the entire economy.

Nor can it be said that women work for pin money. This notion is false. Studies by competent economists show that the income of a woman worker is essential to maintaining the level of family requirements. (H. Lydall and J. B. Lansing, “Distribution of Personal Income and Wealth,” American Economic Review, March 1959.) In a small survey conducted by our organization in the city of Pittsburgh in June 1960, covering almost 600 department store employees, we found only 12 respondents who said that they were working for pin money. Of the 150 multiple wage earners in the group virtually all indicated that their earnings were essential to the family income. This was true for both part-time and full-time women salespeople.

Thus, economic considerations are primary in compelling women to enter the work force. Over half the women who work either support themselves or are the major support of their families. While most of the others supplement the husband’s income, it is the added earnings brought into the family by the working wife that frequently spells the difference between hardship and getting along reasonably well.

In 1960, according to Census Bureau data, 52 percent of the families with two earners had incomes between $5,000 and $10,000 per annum. Those with incomes below $5,000 comprised 31 percent of the two-wage earner families. Obviously, the latter group would be much larger if there were no working wives in our society.

With the earnings of women so essential to the well-being of millions of families, we nevertheless continue to tolerate a situation in which a woman—simply because she is a woman—is paid less for the same work than a man. Thus, in 1958, women professionals earned on the average 64 percent of what men earned: women salesworkers were paid 44 percent of what men were paid; and women serviceworkers were paid 53 percent of what men received (Workers Fact Book, 1960, Bureau of Labor Statistics). In terms of the dollar differences in average earnings, the greatest was to be found among the salesworkers—women received $3,000 per annum less on the average than men.

Now it is said, this condition stems from the fact that women work only part time. Yet an analysis of the part-time situation itself reveals that in this area especially women are paid less than men. In 1958, the average annual earnings figure for men working part time was $3,948, while for women it was $1,473. The average working age of both men and women in these groups was the same—40.4 years and the educational attainments were alike. It is difficult to think of any other reason than discrimination as the basic cause of such discrepancies in earnings.

Part-time employment is quite widespread in retailing and is becoming more so. There is a substantial economic reason for this development: It is not simply a case of people refusing to work a full workweek, as is so often said. Quite simply, selling cost in retailing is a discretionary fixed item. It is fixed like any other overhead cost, since the weekly salary cannot be related easily to traffic flow. The utilization of a part-time work force, geared to peaks and troughs of customer traffic, on the other hand, allows the retail enterprise to convert selling cost into a variable, that is, to relate the expense item to traffic flow in a very direct way.

Now, when the part-time female employee is paid a lower hourly rate, the enterprise has gained a double advantage. An objective analysis of all the relevant data would sustain the conclusion reached by Prof. Clarence D. Long of Johns Hopkins, that, “many women and young people work fewer hours than men and most of them earn less per hour * * *.” And if we may add to Professor Long’s remark, they frequently earn less for doing the same work.

The fact is, as Professor Long points out, wives are less apt to work if their husbands are doing well (C. D. Long, The Labor Force Under Changing Income and Employment, Princeton, 1958). The correlation of work by women with low family incomes was found to be marked. The higher the income level of the husband, the less likely was there a need for the wife to work. The corollary of this is self-evident—women work because they must. As Professor Long says, it is not simply a matter of job opportunities: a woman who needs a job will seek one whether or not men are unemployed or on short hours.

. . . .

Before closing, may I take a few moments to comment on several problems that stem from the language of the proposed bill. The definition of “Employer” is limited to any person having 25 or more employees in any place of employment. We respectfully suggest that this language is unfortunate in that it would remove from the protection offered in the proposed legislation millions of female employees in the retail industry.

For example, in the supermarket sector in 1961 the typical market employed just about 25 employees and we believe that the 1962 data will show a decline in that figure. Consequently, it is conceivable that on an employee basis virtually every supermarket in the Nation will enjoy exemption from equal pay legislation. Moreover, the 1961 figures, compiled by the Supermarket Institute, an industry trade association, reveal that annual sales per employee were $56,000. Translating the employment criterion into a dollar volume criterion, we find that coverage would not begin until the store had an annual volume of $1,400,000. This too suggests a rather limited coverage of the proposed legislation, since many units of large chains have a volume well under this figure.

According to the 1958 Census of Business of the Department of Commerce there were approximately 4.6 million employees in retail establishments with less than 25 employees. Now we estimate that approximately 50 percent of the workers in retailing are women, so that 2.3 million women employees in retailing would be exempt from the proposed equal pay legislation. And this is to say nothing of the situation in other industries.

We see no reason why the equal pay criteria should not equate that which exists in minimum wage legislation. In the latter, the coverage standard is a sales volume, of $1 million or more for the whole enterprise, with particular establishments of that enterprise exempt, if the dollar volume is under $250,000 a year. If such a standard were utilized we estimate that as far as retailing is concerned coverage of the equal pay legislation would be provided to about three-fourths of the women employed in retailing. The remaining one-fourth would be women engaged in smaller independent retail concerns and in the so-called mom and pop enterprises. It is this kind of exemption that is to be found in the minimum wage law also. Thus far, this approach appears to be working satisfactorily for minimum wage purposes and we urge its application for equal pay legislation as well.

The second point on which we urge reconsideration relates to the definition of commerce. Again the precedent of minimum wage legislation seems appropriate. It is not clear from the definition of commerce in the proposed equal pay legislation that retailing, distribution and services would fall within the scope of the proposal before this committee, unless the language clearly specified the intent of Congress to cover these fields by including the phrase “affecting commerce.” It is our considered opinion that retailing, which while conducted in local areas, does in fact “affect” commerce, and Congress does have the constitutional right to regulate activities which “affect” commerce. But in the absence of clear language on “affecting” commerce, we fear the scope of this legislation will be severely restricted.

Third, we suggest that consideration be given to situations in which unfair employers may utilize equal pay legislation to transfer men out of job classification or to redefine job descriptions in ways that would merely maintain women employees at their old salary levels. Clearly, this does not seem to us to be the intent of the proposed legislation, yet it would be possible for a supermarket operator to remove the few men at the check-out counter, reassign them to other duties and thus maintain the old female wage scale.

In concluding our statement may I say that we in the Retail Clerks International Association have achieved a fair measure of progress in eliminating unequal pay for equal work, but there is still much to do. A good deal of progress has been made in other areas as well. Thus, many private employers and the Government, have acknowledged the justice of the principle of equal pay for equal work. Nevertheless, there are large areas of the economy in which women continue to be exploited simply because they are women, To eliminate such inequities, equal pay legislation now seems essential. We therefore support such legislation as embodied in S. 910. Thank you.

Source: Hearings on Amending the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Subcommittee on Labor, Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, United State Senate, 88th Congress, 1st session, April 2, 3, and 16, 1963 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1963). Printed for the use of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare