Lawmakers seek to reduce pay gap between genders
Vermont Press Bureau | February 11,2013
More than a decade has passed since lawmakers created the Vermont Equal Pay Act. But women in the workplace continue to earn less than their male counterparts, and the Legislature this year will again look for ways to bridge the wage gap between genders.
Only one female plaintiff has ever filed suit under the state’s Equal Pay Act. But Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna told lawmakers last week that the dearth of civil cases doesn’t necessarily signal gender equity in the workplace.
In an effort to strengthen the equal pay statute, a bill now under review in the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs would add new provisions to the law passed in 2002. Hanna, an expert on gender-equity issues, said many women either aren’t aware of their rights in the workplace or fear reprisal from employers if they try to assert them.
“If they do find out they’re being paid less (than similarly situated men), they often just internalize that or assume nothing can be done about it,” Hanna said.
Rep. Jill Krowinski, a Democrat from Burlington, said she’s heard from women who suspect unequal compensation practices but who “don’t feel comfortable pursuing it.”
“And this legislation lays out a process so that when women do decide to go down that path, their employers can’t in any way retaliate against them for having done so,” Krowinski said.
The bill also attempts to address the unique challenges faced by working mothers, a group for whom the wage gap is even more stark. Hanna said many employers exhibit bias toward women who request non-traditional hours to accommodate their child care schedules.
“Research tells us one reason women leave the workplace is because of the unavailability of flexible work schedules and parental leave policies,” Hanna said. “While there’s this myth women are not committed to their job after childbirth ... in fact we know from data most women would stay fully employed in the workforce but for the fact there is no flexible time for them.”
The legislation would not only prevent businesses from retaliating against requests for flex time, but require employers to give serious consideration to those requests.
The bill also would create a committee to study the feasibility of a paid parental leave system that would be funded by a payroll tax on employees.
“This issue comes up almost every legislative session,” Krowinski said. “I think it’s important for us to take the time to see what the impact (of paid parental leave) would be on the state, and how it might benefit families.”
The “Paycheck Fairness Act” pending in Congress seeks to strengthen federal prohibitions against wage discrimination. But Krowinski said Vermont ought not wait for Washington, D.C., to take the lead.
“Due to gridlock in Congress I’m not sure we’re going to see movement on that,” she said. “This bill covers a lot of what is in (the federal legislation), and builds on it. And we have an opportunity here to take action and move forward.”