Equal Pay/Fair Wage

Fair Pay Springs Back Onto Agenda of NY Lobbyists

Monday, December 22, 2008

An Obama-era Congress will have at least two chances to act against wage discrimination next year. That raises the hopes of some New York activists, but they say they'll continue to lobby for similar state legislation, just in case.

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Building Case for 'Comparable' Pay

This group is on the national vanguard of those broadening the approach to wage-reform beyond "equal pay" to "comparable" pay. Instead of strict apples-to-apples comparisons of similar job titles and tasks, it entails smoothing out the pay-scale surface of diverse types of work.

For example, Haignere said, in some schools in New York, janitors earn more than the teaching assistants, which she regards as an example of unequal pay in predominantly male and female fields, respectively.

Teaching assistants in the New York area made about $15.61 an hour, compared to janitors, who made $16.27 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"Bottom line, it's looking at the value of the work being done," says Neufeld, a coordinator of the Equal Pay Coalition NYC, which co-hosted a breakfast on the topic last month that included Lilly Ledbetter as a panelist.

Neufeld said New York could set a national example by passing legislation that focuses more on the intrinsic value of women's work rather than inequities between men and women in male-dominated fields.

The New York bill--which acknowledges that discrimination has depressed women's wages--encourages employers to use "a system that measures earning by quantity or quality of production" or any factor "other than sex, race or national origin." The bill specifically urges employers to consider jobs that are dissimilar but have similar requirements, skills or working conditions. Job comparisons should not ignore "the worth of jobs where women and minorities are disproportionately represented," according to the bill.

It also prohibits employers from lowering other employees' wages to meet equal pay standards.

"We would make a statement to other states that we need to look at value of work and not the gender of people working," Neufeld said.

Three Proposals in Congress

Three pay-equity bills have surfaced in the U.S. Congress in the past two years.

The Fair Pay Act, introduced in May 2007 by Iowa Sen. Thomas Harkin, proposed evaluating pay by the quantity or quality of a worker's production, in line with the New York state version. Harkin's bill died in a Senate committee.

But activists expect that two other bills could be revived in the next congressional session, which begins Jan. 6.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, sponsored by New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro and introduced in March 2007, expands damages for employers found guilty of pay discrimination. It passed the House but not the Senate.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2007, sponsored by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and California Rep. George Miller, passed in the House in July 2007 before stalling in the Senate. The bill would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to outlaw discriminatory compensation.

It also aims to restore what many say was lost in the Supreme Court ruling in the Ledbetter case: the right to sue for pay discrimination on the basis of gender, race, national origin or religion.

"This gets us back to level," Neufeld said.

She would also like to see fair-pay wording in any federal bailout bills or measures to stimulate the economy out of recession.

"We should see the fair pay action as part of an economic stimulus package," Neufeld said. "By having women in the work force we create a stronger and more competitive package."

Alison Bowen is a New York City-based reporter for Women's eNews. She is a master's candidate at New York University studying journalism and Latin American and Caribbean studies.

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