Rally touts equal pay for women

By Elizabeth Stortroen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Legislators and members of feminist and labor organizations were seeing red at the April 28 Equal Pay Day rally on the West steps of the Capitol.

The red — displayed in clothing and on signs to show that pay for women and people of color is still “in the red” — is a hallmark of the annual observation started by the National Committee on Pay Equity in 1996 to increase awareness of the gap that remains between men’s and women’s earnings. According to rally organizers, if an average woman works a year and continues working through April 28, her pay on that day would equal what an average man would earn working only from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31.

“Our organization has been a strong support in fighting for pay equity because it is an issue that is still so prevalent,” said Rosemary Harris Lytle of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, the event’s main sponsor. “We have been trying to turn up the volume on this issue because it is more critical that women are paid fairly and equally in these tough economic times.”

According to statistics provided by 9to5, in Colorado, women make 80 cents for every dollar men make, and women of color fare even worse. The group says black women in Colorado make 71 percent of what white men make and Latinas make 56 percent of what white men make.

“We are making tremendous progress in this state and in the country, but we are here today because we know there is a lot of work yet to be done,” said Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien in her address to the scarlet-clad crowd.

“I think that fundamentally, for our future, we have to make sure our daughters are getting the family support and education they need to get any job that they want and earn as much as any male in a similar job, so they can support their families and reach their full potential.”

Stephanie Morris, of Denver, nodded her head as she listened.

“We need rallies like this one to bring everyone together to stand shoulder to shoulder and say, ‘We do not agree with these statistics,’” she said. “I wanted to come today to make a difference and see how I can get involved in closing the pay gap.”

Back in 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, which was supposed to guarantee that women would receive pay equal to men’s if they perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort and responsibility and are performed under similar working conditions within the same establishment.

When JFK signed the bill, American women were making 59 cents on average to a man’s dollar. In 2008, the sum had risen to 78 cents, translating into a narrowing of the wage gap by less than half a cent per year since 1963.

Last April, Gov. Bill Ritter signed the Wage Transparency Act, forbidding employers from punishing employees for talking to other employees about their wages.

Many supporters saw this as an important step forward for pay equity in the state.

“The Wage Transparency Act is a first step in knowing if you are being paid equally or not, and this allows women to do something about it if there is a difference,” said Linda Meric, national executive director of 9to5 at the rally. “Because if you can’t get the information about your pay compared to other people’s pay, how do even begin to know if you are being paid fairly or not?”

Ritter also addressed the issue in 2007 by establishing the Pay Equity Commission, which studies pay gaps in Colorado and makes recommendations to address inequities in both the private and public sectors.

Nancy Reichman, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Denver and a member of the Pay Equity Commission, said the commission’s recommendations call for formal or informal action.

“Our commission has made our recommendations to the Department of Labor and Employment, and now the next step is implementation,” Reichman said. “One such recommendation we made included (asking) a company (to do) a little bit of auditing to see if any pay inequity exists.”

Reichman said even inequities that are unintentional should be addressed.

At the Capitol on Tuesday, Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, and Rep. Sara Gagliardi, D-Arvada, carried a joint resolution, SJR09-046, concerning the designation of April 28, 2009, as “Equal Pay Day” in the state.

“To know our state is doing its part to bring pay equity to the forefront is a great thing to see today,” said Meric.

At the rally, about 150 attendees celebrated these advancements at the state level and cheered, “Close the pay gap” as they waved their signs. The rally was also a celebration of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which, on Jan. 29, became the first bill signed into law by President Barack Obama.

“It is fitting that with the very first bill I sign, we are upholding one of this nation’s first principles: that we are all created equal and each deserve a chance to pursue our own version of happiness,” Obama said at the signing ceremony.

Lilly Ledbetter was a supervisor at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. plant in Gadsen, Ala., for 19 years when she discovered she was earning 30 percent less than the lowest paid man in the same position. She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and was told she could not pursue the case because the 180-day window to file a discrimination claim had begun with her hiring.

After a long legal fight, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was amended to allow for claims within 180 days of each paycheck to be considered discriminatory.

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Ledbetter said the pay inequity she experienced has had a tremendous impact on her and on her family’s financial stability because it reduced the money
available to her in Social Security and her retirement plan.

“Women are not asking or expecting anything to be given to us,” Ledbetter said. “We just want what we earned and what we are entitled to.”

Roberta Francis, co-chair of the ERA Task Force through the National Council of Women’s Organizations, said she dreams of the day the Equal Rights Amendment is passed because then maybe women like Ledbetter wouldn’t have to fight for the “equality she deserved.”

“The fact that that was the first bill signed by the new administration sent positive messages on so many levels,” Francis said in an interview with The Colorado Statesman. “It was extremely important in the legal perspective and important in a sense of sending a strong message that this administration is about equality and justice.”

Organizers of the rally said the next step is full approval by Congress of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which passed the House on Jan. 9.

It would update and strengthen the Equal Pay Act by improving some of its remedies, facilitating class-action claims under the act, prohibiting employer retaliation and closing a loophole in employer defense, among other things.

“We have won victories at the state and federal levels, and we have momentum,” Meric said. “Now is the time to take action to make the changes that all women and women of color, our families, our economy and our country need. We need to get this act passed.”

Also in Washington, D.C., on April 23, Colorado CD 2 Congressmen Jared Polis introduced the Pathways Advancing Career Training (PACT) Act, which would help unemployed and underemployed women train for high-wage, high-skill jobs in the global economy.

“Promoting gender equity in high-growth occupations is good for women. It is good for working families, and it is good for our economy,” Polis said, in a statement. “While our country has made great strides — tremendous strides toward equality — we have a long way to go and particularly women still continue to suffer for less pay for the same work as men across our nation.”

Kit Mura-Smith, of Denver, said the small steps being made at the federal and state levels toward pay equity will make a big difference in the end.

“Last year, when I attended the Equal Pay Day Rally, there were maybe 30 of us here,” Mura-Smith said. “But today, to see all of these men and women together, it shows that we are standing up and growing. We are fighting for pay equity together, and the fight is increasing.”

Beth@coloradostatesman.com