Gender Wage Gap Will Continue Until Forced Arbitration is Stopped

Dawn Souto-Coons loved working for Sterling Jewelers and rose to become her store’s top seller, but her passion for the job waned when she discovered that her male colleagues – who had no previous retail jewelry experience—were being paid $1.50 more per hour than the store’s female employees. As it turned out, Dawn and her female coworkers were victims of the retailer’s rampant and illegal pay discrimination. 

Dawn and 15 other female employees have filed a class action lawsuit against the corporation accusing them of paying less qualified male employees more than female employees, as well as tolerating appalling sexual harassment, The New York Times reported last week. But there’s a chance that Sterling Jewelers will be able to unilaterally kick the women out of court, break up the class and force them to fight individually in its own dispute mill.

Sterling Jewelers, like a majority of major employers, includes a forced arbitration clause in its employment agreement. These abusive provisions allow employers to evade federal employment laws – laws that specifically grant women access to justice — by ensuring that women can never bring their case in court. Instead, wronged employees must have their dispute heard by a costly, secretive and biased arbitrator who does not have to follow the law.

Forced arbitration clauses also prevent groups of women who have been harassed or discriminated against from joining together to hold their employer accountable—meaning that each wronged employee must bear the stress and costs alone in front of an arbitrator of the corporations choosing, no matter how widespread the discrimination or harassment might have been. By severing employees’ ability bring shared grievances, large employers grant themselves license to engage in systemic abusive behavior without any threat of being held accountable in court.

Although Sterling Jeweler’s discriminatory behavior is illegal, it is not at all rare. Since the 1960’s, Congress has enacted several federal laws that seek to close the gender wage gap, but American women still make only 77 cents for every dollar men make. In observance of this sad fact, advocates recognize today, April 8th, as Equal Pay day - the day American women had to keep working to earn what a similarly employed man made in 2013. 

To put that in perspective, that’s 14 extra weeks; 70 extra work days; 560 extra hours that the average woman has to work per year to earn as much as a man. Employers are able to continue this discrimination in part because they know that evasive work-arounds, like forced arbitration, guarantee that female employees can’t hold them accountable in court.

Congress is considering a bill titled the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2013 (AFA) [S.878 / H.R.1844], which would restore fundamental rights created by state and federal employment laws by eliminating forced arbitration in employment cases. 

As long as employers are able to bury forced arbitration clauses in the fine print, women who attempt to enforce their rights will find themselves in the same position as Dawn and her colleagues – locked out of court. 

Women have come too far to be forced back by the injustice buried in the fine print! Tell Congress to honor and preserve women’s rights by co-sponsoring the Arbitration Fairness Act and stopping forced arbitration!