Seeing victory in fair-pay law and a bigger paycheck

Detroit Free Press

Aileen Rizo opened a letter recently from her employer, the Fresno County Office of Education, announcing revisions to its Standard Operating Procedure #1440, “Placement on Salary Schedule.”

Bureaucratic prattle like that doesn’t sound exciting, but Rizo says she “exploded with happiness” when she read it.

It meant not just a $10,000 raise, but victory in her long-running battle for gender-equal pay for herself and others at the 1,000-plus-employee organization, courtesy of the new California Fair Pay Act.

“For the first time in about seven years, I am getting paid equal to my male counterparts,” she says.

The fair-pay law went into effect in January, and California employers, both public and private, would be wise to take notice the way Fresno County did. It refines the old standard of “equal pay for equal work” to equal pay for “substantially similar” work, a nuance that means job titles and other superficial differences aren’t legal grounds for paying men more than women, if the employees are doing much the same thing on a day-to-day basis and have comparable qualifications.

Women are still paid just 79 cents to the dollar for men nationally, 84 cents to the buck in California. Straight out of college, women earn 18 percent less, according to a new report by the American Association of University Women. So the gender pay gap is real, though many employers aren’t aware they’re guilty of it.

Often, women carry the gap with them from job to job. When potential employers ask for current salary information, women paid less at one place are lowballed at the next.

That’s what happened in Rizo’s case, she says. She started her position as a math consultant, helping elementary teachers improve their skills, at the lowest tier of pay based on her old salary. She didn’t know until men were hired at a higher tier that a larger beginning wage was possible. But when she found out, “I was floored knowing my education and experience either outweighed them or was equal to them,” she says.

It’s an issue that Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, is trying to fix with Assembly Bill 1676, which would prohibit potential employers from asking for salary histories. Offer market rate for what a candidate is worth, being the point – though the governor vetoed a similar bill last year.

But with its anti-retaliation measures, the law has helped “empower people to actually ask questions” about what co-workers are paid and why, says Jennifer Reisch of Equal Rights Advocates, which campaigned for the measure. Employers don’t have to disclose what they pay, but they can’t punish workers for talking amongst themselves.

So women are inquiring, creating “an opportunity for employers to do some self-examination,” Reisch says. That kind of proactive action is good.

The alternative can be seen in a federal gender-discrimination lawsuit against Farmers Insurance, currently making its way toward class-action status. That case, filed in California last year, alleges that Farmers pays its female lawyers less than men and forced out a woman who objected.

Coincidentally, five days after Rizo got her letter, Farmers was informed that lawyer Lori Andrus was amending that complaint to include violations of the California Fair Pay Act – possibly the first time it will be litigated, but not the last.

“No one is advocating for communist Russia where everyone gets paid the same,” said Andrus, pointing out that merit, seniority and other business-related attributes are valid reasons for pay differences. The standard, she says, should be “transparency and accountability.”

It took “many hours” to figure out that kind of explainable system in Fresno County, schools Superintendent Jim Yovino said via an email statement, but the law is the law.

And whether employers spend time figuring it out themselves or having a judge do it, as Rizo puts it, “this law means business.”

Anita Chabria is a freelance writer in Sacramento. Contact her at