Vermont takes lead in closing wage gap
By Bruce Edwards
STAFF WRITER | June 16,2013
Vermont has the second-smallest wage gap in the country, with a woman earning nearly 87 cents on the dollar of what a man earns, according to a just-released study by the National Women’s Law Center.
Washington, D.C, ranked first with the smallest wage gap at 90.4 cents on the dollar.
The report, “Closing the Wage Gap: How Raising the Minimum Wage Promotes Fair Pay for Women,” found that nationally in 2011 a woman working full time typically earned only 77 cents on the dollar compared to what a man earned.
“One reason for this gap is that women are concentrated in low-wage jobs,” with women comprising two-thirds of minimum-wage and tipped workers, the report said, noting a disproportionate ratio are women of color.
The wage gap persists due to both overt and more subtle forms of discrimination against women, said Kate Gallagher Robinson, a wage-gap expert with the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C.
Robinson said in an interview that the discrimination can take various forms from being “discouraged from certain job choices or penalized because they have a disproportionate share of care-giving responsibilities, particularly for children.”
She said certain states with male-dominated industry sectors, like energy, don’t have a history of hiring women.
It’s one reason Wyoming leads the nation with the largest wage gap, she said.
Robinson also said states like Vermont have made efforts to eliminate the pay gap.
“You see a set of commitments in a state like Vermont that you’re not seeing in some of these other states,” she said.
Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, agreed that the state has been proactive on the issue of equal pay.
“Our Legislature just really took a really big step toward that with the passage of Act 31 this past session,” Brown said, “which strengthened the existing equal pay law and kind of closed some loopholes in it.”
She said the new law increased protections against retaliation and also created a first-in-the-nation right for an employee to request flexible working hours from their employer.
Brown said the employer doesn’t have to grant the request, but can’t prevent or retaliate against the employee for making the request.
She said flexible work arrangements are important for both women and men, who may have child-care responsibilities or need to care for an elder parent.
Brown said the law’s provision was modeled after laws in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Vermont may also fare better than other states because the state has more people who work in government jobs, which have a smaller wage gap.
One reason for that is that there is full transparency in what people are paid, Brown said.
“So it’s really hard to get away with paying unequal pay for equal work,” she said.
In what is the first case testing the state’s equal pay law, U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions ruled last week that Hudson News violated both state and federal law three years ago when it hired Jarrod Dixon at a higher wage than Wendie Dreves, the former newsstand manager at Burlington International Airport.
Brown said Session’s decision is another step in protecting women against discrimination and closing the wage gap.
When it comes to the minimum wage, Julie Vogtman of the National Women’s Law Center said there is a definite correlation between the minimum wage and the wage gap.
Vermont’s minimum wage, which is tied to inflation, increased in January to $8.60 an hour. Vermont’s minimum wage for workers who earn tips is $4.17 an hour.
The federal minimum wage remains at $7.25 an hour. The federal tipped minimum wage is $2.13 an hour.
Vogtman said in an interview that Vermont has one of the highest minimum wage laws in the country and also has the smallest wage gap among the 50 states.
“A lot of the states that you see at the bottom of the wage-gap rankings have just that federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour,” Vogtman said.
She said if the federal minimum wage had kept up with inflation since the late 1960s, the minimum wage today would be $10.70 an hour.
The last time the federal minimum was raised was in 2009. The federal tipped minimum wage has been frozen for 20 years at $2.13 an hour.
The average wage gap for states with a minimum wage above the federal level is 3 cents smaller than the average wage gap in states where the federal minimum wage is just $7.25.
Seven of the 10 states with the narrowest wage gap had a minimum wage above the federal minimum wage.
The states with the largest wage gap are concentrated in the South and West. Wyoming has the widest gap, with women earning just 66.6 cents on the dollar compared to male workers.
While some states like Vermont have made progress raising the minimum wage, Vogtman said, there are any number of states that won’t raise the minimum wage on their own.
“We do think the most progress for women in particular would be through a federal minimum-wage increase,” she said, adding that $7.25 “is not enough to live on in any state.”