In Corning Glass Works v. Brennan, 417 U.S. 188 (1974), the Supreme Court addressed the allocation of proof in pay discrimination claims under the Equal Pay Act of 1963. This was the first Supreme Court decision applying the Equal Pay Act. The Court held that to prevail on an EPA claim, the plaintiff must prove that the employer pays an employee of the one sex more than it pays an employee of the other sex for substantially equal work. The opinion addressed what it meant for two employees to perform “substantially equal work” for the purposes of the Equal Pay Act, including what it means for work to be performed under “similar working conditions.”
Corning was a glassworks company. It employed night shift inspectors and day shift inspectors at its plants. For many years, Corning allowed only men to work the night shift, and it paid night shift inspectors more than it paid the day shift inspectors, who were women. In June 1966, three years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act, Corning began opening the night shift jobs to women, allowing female employees to apply for the higher-paid night inspection jobs on an equal seniority basis with men.
In January 1969, Corning implemented a new “job evaluation” system for setting wage rates. Under that pay system, all subsequently-hired inspectors were to receive the same base wage (which was higher than the previous night shift rate) regardless of sex or shift. With respect to employees hired before the new pay system went into effect, however, the pay plan provided that those employees who worked the night shift would continue to receive a higher (“red circle”) rate. Because of this “red circle” rate, the new pay system perpetuated the previous difference in base pay between day and night inspectors, thereby also perpetuating the previous disparity in pay between female (day) inspectors and male (night) inspectors.
The Equal Pay Act prohibits an employer from paying different wages to employees of opposite sexes “for equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions,” except where the difference in payment is made pursuant to a seniority or merit system or one measuring earnings by quantity or quality of production, or where the differential is “based on any other factor other than sex.” 29 U.S.C. § 206(d).
The Secretary of Labor brought suit, asserting that Corning’s pay practices violated the EPA by paying male and female inspectors differently for equal work.
The Court’s Decision
The Court addressed the question of whether Corning’s pay practices violated the EPA by paying different wages to employees of opposite sexes for “equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions[.]” The Court found that they did.
First, the Court held that Corning’s pay practices from the passage of the EPA in 1963 to June 1966 violated the EPA, because during that period the night shift inspectors (all male) were paid more than the day shift inspectors (female) and the night shift and day shift inspectors performed equal work “under similar working conditions.” 29 U.S.C. § 206(d). Corning argued the difference between working at night and working at day meant the different positions did not entail similar working conditions. The Court rejected this argument, holding that the EPA’s legislative history established that the statutory term “working conditions,” as used in the EPA, encompasses only physical surroundings and hazards, and not the time of day worked. 417 U.S. 197-204.
Corning also argued that the pre-1966 pay disparity was lawful because the higher pay to (male) night inspectors was intended as additional compensation for the inconvenience of night work, and thus the pay disparity was based on a “factor other than sex[.]” 29 U.S.C. § 206(d). The Court rejected this argument, holding the evidence showed the pay disparity in fact arose because men would not work for the low rates paid to women inspectors. The pay disparity therefore “reflected a job market in which Corning could pay women less than men for the same work.” 417 U.S. 204-05.
Second, the Court held that Corning did not remedy its violation of the EPA in June 1966 simply by permitting women to work as night shift inspectors, because the violation could only be cured by increasing the base wages of female day inspectors to meet the higher rates paid to night inspectors. Corning’s action in allowing women to work the night shift did not accomplish this, as “Corning’s action still left the inspectors on the day shift — virtually all women — earning a lower base wage than the night shift inspectors because of a differential initially based on sex and still not justified by any other consideration[.]” 417 U.S. 207-08. In effect, “Corning was still taking advantage of the availability of female labor to fill its day shift at a differentially low wage rate not justified by any factor other than sex.” Id. Thus, Corning’s allowing women to work the night shift, without increasing base pay to the female day shift workers, did not remedy the EPA violation.
Finally, the Court held the Corning did not remedy its violation of the EPA in January 1969 with its pay plan equalizing day and night inspector rates, because the plan’s higher “red circle” rate paid to employees who previously worked the night shift only perpetuated the previous unlawful pay disparity. This was because the previously-hired male night shift workers would receive the higher red circle rate based on their pre-1969 pay — before day and night wage rates were equalized. Thus, the pay plan had the unlawful effect of continuing the pay disparity between men and women for equal work. As the Court observed, “the company’s continued discrimination in base wages between night and day workers, though phrased in terms of a neutral factor other than sex, nevertheless operated to perpetuate the effects of the company’s prior illegal practice of paying women less than men for equal work.” 417 U.S. 209-10.
This case was important because it marked the first time the Supreme Court addressed the requirements of the Equal Pay Act. The Court held that to prevail on an EPA claim, the plaintiff must prove that the employer pays an employee of one sex more than it pays an employee of the other sex for substantially equal work. The opinion addressed what it meant for two employees to perform “substantially equal work” for the purposes of the EPA, and held that the requirement for work to be performed under “similar working conditions” referred to physical surroundings and hazards, and not the time of day worked. If a male employee and a female employee perform equal work at different times of the day, they should therefore be given equal pay — unless the pay disparity is based on a seniority or merit system or one measuring earnings by quantity or quality of production, or where the differential is “based on any other factor other than sex.” 29 U.S.C. § 206(d). If an employer’s pay practices violate the EPA, the only way to cure the violation is to equalize wages between men and women — simply offering women the same job titles is not sufficient. And pay systems that have the effect of perpetuating prior discrimination may still violate the EPA — even if the pay system is neutrally-worded and made without intent to discriminate.
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