Pay equity: unfinished business: Many hands keep pushing to close the gap

Patty Tanji (Courtesy Photo)

As 2014 dawned, pay equity hit the spotlight. President Obama cited it in his State of the Union address. On Jan. 30, Minnesota House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, unveiled a Women’s Economic Security Act for the 2014 legislative session – with closing the gender pay gap featured prominently. 

(Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, and Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, are chief authors of the multifaceted proposal.) 

So, why now – 32 years after passage of landmark pay equity legislation for Minnesota’s state government workers and 30 years after a similar law was applied to local government? 

“I think with the rise of the Tea Party, we’ve had a more hard-edged conversation on the role of women – from our role in the workforce to personal health care choices,” said House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul. “As a result, women in all stages of life are thinking anew about the issues we face.” 

Defining terms

It’s important to note that “pay equity” isn’t “equal pay for equal work.” The latter concept has been the law of the land since the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963. Rather, explained Barbara Battiste, pay equity means equal pay for work of comparable value – as in the classic example of the clerk-typist and the janitor. 

Battiste is director of the nonpartisan Legislative Office on the Economic Status of Women, which advises the Legislature and provides information and statistics on women in Minnesota. She started the job in January. 

Since enactment of the 1982 law mandating pay equity among state government employees, Minnesota has “virtually eliminated” that sector’s gender pay gap, said Battiste, adding that “in local government, we’ve narrowed it significantly.” 

Overall in Minnesota, though, a 20 percent gap remains: The average woman working full-time, year-round earns 80 percent of white males’ pay. 

Women of color fare worse. Asian women earn 74 percent; African-American and American Indian women earn 62 percent of white male pay; and Latina Minnesotans earn 57 percent. 

It’s often noted that women are less likely to go into high-paying fields (such as engineering) and more likely to pause their careers for family reasons. But according to Battiste, after all variables are accounted for – what college you attended, course of study, connection to the workforce, and so on – there remains a gender pay gap of 5 to 7 cents per dollar that’s unattributable to any of that. 

“Part of that is surely gender discrimination,” said Battiste – but then, gender discrimination also lurks behind many of the aforementioned variables. 

Have other states caught up and perhaps overtaken Minnesota on pay equity policy since the 1982 law? No, said Battiste. Minnesota was the first and still the only state with a local government pay equity law, and only a handful have state government equity laws. 

No state, she added, requires private sector pay equity. About 85 percent of Minnesotans work in the private sector, Battiste said, where the pay gap is 23 percent. (Women make 77 cents on the dollar). As a first step toward addressing that, the Women’s Economic Security Act would require private businesses that contract with the state to report on pay equity within their workforces.

Big impact

To Patty Tanji, pay is the top feminist issue. 

“The size of our paychecks impacts our effectiveness as employees, as mothers, wives, sisters, aunties,” said Tanji, president of the Pay Equity Coalition of Minnesota. “The stress and strain of not earning to your potential affects your individual sense of self-worth and is a drag on our public health and our economy.” 

The impact at the individual level can be huge. Tanji cited a client employed as an administrator in the construction industry who had access to payroll data and knew her paycheck was about $25,000 less than men who did part-time seasonal work. She and Tanji crafted a proposal focusing on how much the woman brought to the table and how much that was worth. 

“She got a $20,000 pay raise,” Tanji said. 

Because not all women have access to payroll information, another part of the Women’s Economic Security Act would protect employees from retaliation for discussing their own and others’ compensation. As Battiste said: “How can you know you’re not being paid fairly if you don’t know what others earn?” 

Protecting gains

While moving forward, advocates also have to protect gains made decades ago. Regular attempts are made to repeal or weaken the 1984 local government pay equity law, Tanji said. 

An attempt came as recently as 2011, when Republicans controlled the Minnesota Legislature. An outcry from women’s business groups, unions, newspaper editorial boards and many others thwarted the rollback. 

“Human systems will always include bias and be subject to inequity,” Murphy said. “That’s why it’s important to have tools in place.” 

Or, as Tanji put it: “We can do this one person at a time – or we can do this collectively through public policy.” 

FFI: Women’s Economic Security Act of 2014