California Forum

Is rigged research widening the state’s gender pay gap?

California Highway Patrol are sworn in during a March graduation ceremony at the CHP Academy in West Sacramento. Successful collective bargaining by powerful, and mostly male, public safety unions has helped perpetuate the gap between male and female state workers’ pay.
California Highway Patrol are sworn in during a March graduation ceremony at the CHP Academy in West Sacramento. Successful collective bargaining by powerful, and mostly male, public safety unions has helped perpetuate the gap between male and female state workers’ pay. rpench@sacbee.com

Some might imagine the public sector as a model of gender equity among employers. It isn’t. In 2014, women who worked full-time for the state of California made just 79.5 percent of the salary of full-time male employees.

In this series for California Forum, I’ve been examining the persistence of the gender wage gap, even in government civil service. One big reason may be the way the state surveys and sets salaries.

The California Department of Human Resources (CalHR) typically conducts studies that compare salaries and benefits for state jobs with compensation for similar positions in federal and local government and private companies.

This comparison data is then used to negotiate competitive compensation with the 21 bargaining units that represent all state employees – except those specifically “excluded” from collective bargaining, including management.

To the extent that political access and influence determine how salaries are surveyed and set, it becomes much harder for the State of California to commit to pay equity for women.

Peel off the covers of way too many state reports, though, and you learn that not all salary surveys are created equal.

Several public safety unions – representing state firefighters, California Highway Patrol officers and dispatchers, and state peace officers – have secured laws that create special rules for how salary surveys are conducted for their members. (In a few cases, memorandums of understanding, or MOUs, set rules as well.)

Salaries for state firefighters, for example, are compared to similar positions in “jurisdictions employing 75 or more full-time firefighters who work in California.”

Salaries for sworn officers of the California Highway Patrol are benchmarked against positions in police and sheriff’s departments in large urban areas: San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland.

State peace officers have their salaries compared to counterparts working for “large employers.”

For these public safety workers, salaries are likely to go up and up, as they are “benchmarked” to compensation in midsize and large communities where the cost of living is higher. Unions in these communities also tend to be powerful and adept at negotiating generous compensation packages.

Not so lucky are office clerks and dieticians. Compensation for these jobs and others get compared to positions throughout the state, including smaller – and poorer – communities.

CalHR points out that compensation surveys simply offer the state a starting point to negotiate with bargaining units. That may be the case. But a union wouldn’t work to pass legislation unless it helped in negotiating a better compensation package for members.

And seriously, if you were representing employees, wouldn’t you want a law that helped you start negotiations with higher salary estimates?

Politically powerful unions representing male-dominated public safety professions have secured the most favorable salary surveys.

Salaries for CHP dispatchers, a field with many women, are an exception, benchmarked against comparable urban positions. Then again, CHP dispatchers are represented by a public safety bargaining unit, unsurprisingly.

One labor leader candidly observed that public safety unions have “oversized political power, larger than the share of people they represent.”

That’s true, and we need more discussion about how this influence imperceptibly perpetuates the gender wage gap. To the extent that political access and influence determine how salaries are surveyed and set, it becomes much harder for the State of California to commit to pay equity for women. That would apply to people of color as well.

It’s time for the state to make sure salary surveys are conducted the same way for all state jobs, and to get rid of the bias in benchmarking.

In other words: No more rigged research.

Kate Karpilow is the former executive director of the California Center for Research on Women & Families. She can be contacted at katekarpilow@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @katekarpilow.

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