Mason-Draffen, a business reporter, writes a column about workplace issues.
DEAR CARRIE: My daughter works part time for a retailer at a local mall. She says the store's male employees earn more than their female counterparts, even when they all perform the same work. She believes the disparity is outright discrimination because the men don't have more education than the women. What can she do about this? -- Unequal Pay Day
DEAR UNEQUAL: Your question is timely because Tuesday is National Equal Pay Day, which marks how far into the current year women must work to catch up to what men earned in 2012, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity. Each year the group calls attention to gender pay disparities.
The discrimination you describe would be illegal, said the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace.
"It is a violation of the Equal Pay Act to pay an employee a lower wage than an employee of the opposite sex in the same establishment when the employees perform substantially equal work requiring equal skill, effort and responsibility," said Elizabeth Grossman, regional attorney in the agency's New York District Office in Manhattan.
And that coverage extends to all types of payments and benefits for employees.
"All forms of pay, including salary, overtime pay, bonuses, vacation pay, insurance, use of company vehicles, and benefits, are covered by the laws enforced by EEOC," she said.
An employer may justify the pay differential if it results because of a seniority system, a merit system, an incentive system or other factors such as education, experience, training, ability, shift differential or job-classification systems, Grossman said.
"For example, an employer may pay employees more because they have a college degree that is related to the job, or because they do outstanding work, or because they've worked for the company for a long time," she said. "Differences in pay are not always illegal."
Since the passage of the Equal Pay Act 50 years ago, the gender pay gap has narrowed, but women still earn an average of only 77 cents for every dollar paid to men, Grossman said. The gap is even greater for women of color and for women with disabilities.
"The persistent pay gap between men and women demonstrates that the promise of equal pay remains unfulfilled," she said.
Part of the pay gap between men and women is attributable to the "part-time penalty," which is the common practice of paying part-time workers lower hourly wages than full-time workers doing the same job, Grossman said. And women make up 64 of the part-time workforce, said Grossman, citing a report by the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. And they dominate industries with large numbers of part-time workers like food service and personal care.
But pay discrimination by gender is another matter, and employees with those concerns should try to get more information about their pay.
"Employees should read their company handbook or talk to a supervisor or human-resources staff if they have questions about their pay," Grossman said. "They should keep records of what they are paid and what type of work they do."
And if your daughter and her female co-workers believe gender discrimination is at play, they should contact the EEOC at 212-336-3620 or file a discrimination claim eeoc.gov.
They are protected against retaliation.
"It is illegal for someone to be punished for reporting discrimination or participating in a discrimination investigation or lawsuit," Grossman said.