Boston activists push for new equal pay law

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BOSTON – More than 70 years after Massachusetts made it illegal to pay men and women different rates for the same job, a group of female activists and community leaders gathered Tuesday at Simmons College to call for passage of a gender equity bill that would require employers to pay men and women equally for jobs that are not the same in all respects.  

The event, a celebration of International Women’s Day, marked the start of a day of lobbying on Beacon Hill to push for legislation that passed the State Senate in January (SB 2107). The measure would require employers to pay male and female employees the same amount for jobs that are “substantially similar” and ban employers from punishing workers for disclosing their wages to colleagues.  It would also prohibit employers from subtracting time spent on maternity leave from wage calculations based on seniority and would set fines for violators at $1,000, up from $100.

In 1945, the Bay State was the first in the nation to pass an equal pay law.  Equal pay for equal work has been part of federal law for over 50 years. Although raw statistics suggest that women overall still get paid only a fraction of what men earn, working women who are childless out-earn similarly experienced men by 8 percent – $1.08 to every $1 paid to male counterparts.

But at the gathering in Boston on Tuesday, Marie St. Fleur, the chief executive of the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children, suggested that this is itself unfair.

“I don’t think it’s fair, because we all have the babies. So why is it that I have to pay a higher cost?”

“When we allow government to provide a structure that keeps them in poverty, we do them an injustice,” St. Fleur said of women who work in low-wage occupations, drawing applause from a standing-room only crowd conference hall.

“The guys still have to work, women still have to catch up,” said St. Fleur, whose organization conducts research on early education systems.

Other panelists suggested that laws often aren’t enough, particularly when it comes to raising women’s earnings.

“It’s not just up to government, it’s not just about legislation,” said Megan Costello, director of Boston’s women’s advancement office.

“This has to be a collective effort – of government, of business, of the nonprofit world, of individual citizens – because we do not do this alone,” Costello said. A cultural change is needed, she said.

“What can we do from a cultural perspective?” Costello asked. “How do we actually shift the culture within organizations to really impact change?”

In her agency, Costello said that in addition to working on legislative initiatives, the staff also work with employers to analyze pay rates and with women workers to obtain skills-based training to help them become and stay competitive in the labor force.

Nai Collymore-Henry, representing the state chapter of the National Organization for Women, recalled how she had been fired from two food-industry jobs after asking management why her wages were significantly lower than her inexperienced male coworkers. She didn’t say whether she tried to bring a legal action against the employers.

Some advocates say Massachusetts women earn 82 cents for every $1 paid to male workers, though they don’t claim pay disparities for comparable jobs.

June O’Neill, director of the Center for the Study of Business and Government at Baruch College in New York, says the figures are misleading.

According to O’Neill, history speaks volumes. As cultural attitudes and family roles shift, and women have entered occupations previously held only by men, the wage gap has shrunk.  But even today, O’Neill said in an interview, men and women, “are not doing the same thing. If you find data that they are doing same thing and same level, I doubt there’s very much of a difference at all.”

“Women tend to go into different fields, there are differences in occupations they want to go into,” she said.

O’Neill, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, and former director of policy and research at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, warned that measuring pay disparities, when they exist, and ascertaining employer decision-making behind wage rates can be difficult.

“It’s hard to get data on how people are performing.”

“You can compare two men in an organization who have different pay,” she said, and that can be clear enough. But, she added, “The reason why is hard to document.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.