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Pay Gap Persists Even as Women’s Soccer Scores Big Settlement

Feb. 23, 2022, 10:30 AM

The women’s national soccer team’s multimillion-dollar settlement may end a years-long battle for equal pay for the athletes, but it only serves as a moral victory for other women who must carry on their separate compensation lawsuits since the pact doesn’t carry legal precedential value or directly impact pending suits.

Equal pay advocates cheered the settlement announced Tuesday, cautioning that it wasn’t a clear signal that all equal pay lawsuits will result in a worker win: The facts of individual cases vary and large companies are still fighting lawsuits that claim compensation bias against women employees.

“It’s a huge victory for female athletes and women across the country, primarily because this has been a longstanding and very public fight with very clear pay disparities,” said Neena Chaudhry, general counsel and senior adviser for education at the National Women’s Law Center. “Every case is different, and every case is individual and specific to its facts.”

Originally filed in 2019 by high-profile players including Megan Rapinoe, the lawsuit alleged the female soccer athletes were paid less than members of the men’s national team. The women appealed a judge’s decision that the pay difference was due to negotiated terms in their collective bargaining agreements, countering that they were more successful than the U.S. men’s team and should be compensated based on that winning record.

Chaudhry said it’s hard to know what impact this settlement might have as women continue to earn about 83 cents for every dollar made by men, according to National Women’s Law Center data, and pay discrimination lawsuits are ongoing and continue to be filed. The women’s soccer dispute attracted the support of civil rights agencies like the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, women’s groups like the NWLC, and the union representing the men’s team, but pay gaps for women across the country persist.

“It’s a hugely encouraging development to women—and to women athletes in particular—but to women more broadly,” said David Goldstein, a Littler Mendelson P.C. shareholder who represents employers in workplace matters. “It’s a combination that civil rights litigation makes a difference and matters, but pay is about economics, and partly this reflects the changes we’ve seen in the interest in women’s sports.”

The settlement is contingent on the ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement, and a federal judge’s approval, U.S. Soccer and the U.S. Women’s National Team said in a filing Tuesday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, where the players had turned for relief from a trial court ruling. Oral argument had been set for March 7.

VIDEO: If Women Still Earn Less, Can Laws Even Fix The Pay Gap?

‘Not Good Enough’

Still, large employers continue to push back against pay discrimination lawsuits and low-wage workers face hurdles when seeking workplace justice.

KPMG paid $10 million to settle pay bias and other discrimination allegations last year, and Alphabet Inc.‘s Google similarly settled discrimination claims for $2.6 million. Other companies, such as Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC and Goldman Sachs Group Inc., are still fighting allegations of unequal pay.

“I don’t know that you can really generalize from this because I think all situations are different,” said Littler’s Goldstein. “For someone who has been doing pay equity work for 30 years, it’s just so complicated.”

The willingness of the EEOC to step in on behalf of the female athletes was significant, Chaudhry said, and brought further visibility to the issue of unequal pay. The agency didn’t respond to a request for comment on the settlement Tuesday.

Fighting the pay gap is even more challenging for low-wage workers and women of color, said Leng Leng Chancey, executive director of 9to5, a group representing the interests of women and working families. She said she hopes these lawsuits will continue to surface so people can fight for what they deserve, but systemic barriers still stop low-wage workers from beginning the process to file a lawsuit.

“It’s great that women athletes can do this, but it’s still not good enough,” she said.

The case is Morgan, et al v. U.S. Soccer, 9th Cir., No. 21-55356, Motion to stay appellate proceedings pending settlement 2/22/22.

To contact the reporter on this story: Paige Smith in Washington at psmith@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com