Karen Nussbaum of the AFL-CIO

(WOMENSENEWS)–Maine, one of several states that requires pay equity for its public employees, has become the first state to promulgate rules that would require male and female private sector employees who work in comparable jobs to be paid at a comparable rate.

The rules, 35 years in the making, come just in time to energize the national celebration of Equal Pay Day, an annual event staged by the National Committee on Pay Equity to dramatize the effects of the persistent wage gap between men and women.

Because women overall still are paid just 72 cents for every dollar paid to men–$148 a week less, on average–it takes women 15 months to make as much money as men do in a year. To drive home the point, Equal Pay Day is celebrated on a Tuesday because it takes women seven days to make as much money as men make in five.

At a press conference on Tuesday, officials released a U.S. Department of Labor review of federal contractors’ pay practices. It shows how far the country has to go in ensuring men and women are paid equally, even when they perform the same job and have the same experience levels, said Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Committee on Pay Equity. But, the report said, occupational segregation remains a leading cause of the gender-based wage gap.

It is that problem of widespread occupational segregation-some jobs are “women’s work” while others are “men’s work”-that would be addressed by comparable worth laws, such as the one that Maine is about to begin enforcing. That state’s comparable worth law was passed in 1966. But the law languished on the books until 1997, when it was discovered by a coalition of groups developing strategies on how to lobby for bills that would fight poverty. The coalition, which included the Maine AFL-CIO, fought for a bill requiring the Maine Department of Labor to enforce the comparable worth law. It took four years to write the rules. Maine already had a law covering public sector employees, but these new rules will strengthen enforcement for government workers as well.

The new rules could take effect within 180 days now that Monday’s deadline for public comment passed without a word from the Maine business community, said a jubilant Ned McCann, secretary-treasurer of the Maine AFL-CIO.

“We won,” McCann said. “And the rules are good. The business community has not awakened to the fact that this is going to cost them.”

But a leading state business group agreed that the rules are good.

“We don’t have any objection to the rules,” said Chris Hall, executive vice president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. “We think it’s appropriate that business take a look at pay issues and address those situations where there is an inequity.”

The business community would have opposed the rules if the state had set down an edict that women’s wages be raised in 12 months or something equally onerous, Hall said. But rules call for a gradual process and the state is offering technical assistance to companies seeking ways to implement comparable worth.

Example: Equalizing Pay Between Male Janitors and Female Nurses

The rules require that both public and private employers pay workers equally for doing jobs of comparable worth. For example, a nursing home that pays its overwhelmingly female certified registered nurses $7.50 an hour, while it pays its overwhelmingly male janitorial staff $9 an hour would have to pay the groups equally because both provide a service that is equally vital to the institution.

There’s a loophole: Employers don’t have to lift payments to the underpaid. The rules do not prevent an employer from attempting to reduce the janitors’ wages to bring them in line with the lower-paid nurses.

The rules also provide several remedies for employees who believe they have been the victims of wage discrimination. Most important among them, McCann said: Employees can file class action lawsuits seeking unlimited damages.

The timing of the new rules gives an unintentional boost to today’s observance of Equal Pay Day. Events are being staged in at least 10 state capitals across the county to focus attention on the need for equal pay and the efforts to legislate it, said Karen Nussbaum, head of the Working Women Department at the AFL-CIO.

“I think that equal pay is probably the most potent and underrated political issue out there. It comes out right at the top of every poll that gets taken,” Nussbaum said in an interview. “We’re beginning to see it at the state level. In New York, there are about 20 bills–every legislator out there wants to get his or her name on this thing.”

20 States Adjust Payrolls to Correct for Sex, Race Bias

Pay equity is the practice of paying workers equally if their jobs require equal skill, responsibility, effort and working conditions. Since the 1980s, 20 states have adjusted their payrolls to correct for sex or race bias, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity, a coalition of more than 180 organizations fighting for equal pay laws. Another 24 states have launched studies to determine whether gender affects pay.

In the last three years, equal pay has gained momentum, according to the Center for Policy Alternatives, which tracks state efforts. In the last few weeks alone, nine state legislatures have moved legislation. Traditionally conservative Wyoming has enacted a pay equity law and the New Mexico Legislature has sent a bill to the governor’s desk. This year, 67 bills have been introduced in 30 different states.

Map of state action on pay equity legislation in 2001. 19 have introduced bills; 11 have moved toward passage.

Two bills also are pending in Congress. The Fair Pay Act would expand the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to protect against wage discrimination for workers in equivalent jobs with similar skills and responsibilities, even if the jobs are not identical. The Paycheck Fairness Act would provide more effective remedies for workers who are not being paid equal wages for doing equal work.

The Employment Policy Foundation, a nonpartisan group that opposes pay equity efforts, believes that pay equity could actually hurt women workers. Economist Anita U. Hattiangadi, author of “A Closer Look at Comparable Worth,” says that after Minnesota pursued an equal pay system for state government workers, the unemployment rate for women rose almost 5 percent–over four times higher than the rate for men after the policy was enacted.

And, Hattiangadi said, the state’s job evaluation process created ill will, as government employees argued that their positions were worth more than their colleagues’ positions.

She believes the same experience will be repeated anywhere pay equity is the law.

Critics Say Equal Pay Laws Often Hurt Women and Increase Ill Will

“Pay would increase for incumbent workers who keep their jobs, but the increased cost to employers can reduce employment opportunities for both women and men,” the Employment Policy Foundation said in a press release in advance of the 2001 Equal Pay Day. “Raising pay for traditionally female-dominated jobs will also reduce market incentives for women to pursue other careers, fostering the very job segregation that comparable worth supporters oppose.

“Most importantly, comparable worth assumes that women are forced into particular occupations, rather than choosing them because they offer benefits women value, including scheduling flexibility and lower penalties for workforce absences,” the release said.

President Bush did not address the pay equity issue during the campaign, but in mid-March he appointed Diana Furchtgott-Roth as chief of staff for his Council of Economic Advisors. She is the co-author of “Women’s Figures: An Illustrated Guide to the Economic Progress of Women in America,” which, like Hattiangadi’s book, argues that there is no wage gap after controlling for education, experience and marital and family status. In short, both economists found that young, single, childless women who work full time make the same as men.

The AFL-CIO’s Nussbaum doesn’t dispute whether young, single career women make as much as their male counterparts. But she does wonder why they should be the only ones who do.

“Great. OK. If you live a pristine life where nothing interferes, then you can have equal pay. We thought it might be better if it had a more broad definition,” she said.

Free-lance writer Cindy Richards has been a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. She has written about health care, children’s issues, education and women’s issues. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for her coverage of workplace issues.