Editorial: Legislation promotes workplace fairness
There’s a famous old episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which Mary Richards, the associate producer of a local TV news show, stumbles upon documentation that she’s being paid $50 less per week than the person who held her job before her. She marches boldly into the boss’s office and makes a stink. Mr. Grant tells her, candidly, that the difference is all about gender. Her predecessor was a man – and he had a family to support. Mary explains that such distinctions are immaterial. Mr. Grant, still clinging to his chauvinism, offers her an additional $20 per week. Mary’s not satisfied, but by the time the episode draws to a close, the boss relents, Mary gets her $50 raise and viewers have been klonked over the head with a lesson about pay equity.
Mary Richards never went to court, never called the Human Rights Commission or Department of Labor. She didn’t hire a lawyer, didn’t join a union. She certainly didn’t get harassed or fired for her protest. She never even hesitated to stand up for herself.
In real life, it wasn’t nearly so easy for women in the workplace in the 1970s. That remains true for some here in the 21st century, too. That’s why Concord Sen. Sylvia Larsen’s modest-sounding legislation makes good sense – and why the resistance voiced at a public hearing last week is wrong-headed.
Larsen has sponsored the New Hampshire Paycheck Fairness Act. It would require employers, upon a complaint, to prove that wage differentials between men and women holding the same position and doing the same work stem from factors other than gender. It would prohibit retaliation against workers who ask about their employers’ wage practices or who disclose their own wages to coworkers. It would strengthen penalties for equal-pay violations and require employers to display notices informing employees of their rights.
The simple logic behind the legislation is this: Women in New Hampshire and across the country continue to be paid less than men for the same work. Sometimes they don’t even know it because workplace rules or culture make it impossible for them to find out. Without knowledge, they’re powerless to help themselves.
Earlier this month, the Monitor published a compelling column by Lilly Ledbetter in these pages. Ledbetter’s Supreme Court case, in which the justices found that she had waited too long to complain about unequal pay to deserve compensation – even though she didn’t know about the inequity while it was happening – inspired federal legislation in her name to reverse the ruling. But as her column pointed out, the Ledbetter law was only a start. In arguing for a federal version of Larsen’s Paycheck Fairness Act, Ledbetter noted, “This action would help dismantle what was my largest barrier all those years ago – not knowing that I was being paid unfairly and having no way to find out. Few women have that information, and some don’t feel safe asking questions for fear of retaliation from their bosses. I was told I’d be fired if I shared salary information at work.”
Last week, state Sen. Andy Sanborn expressed skepticism about Larsen’s bill. “Do you know of any companies that are breaking the law today?” he asked. And Sen. Sam Cataldo said he’d seen no evidence of it himself.
But that’s just the point. Today, it’s sometimes difficult for employees – women and men alike – to learn about the wage structure where they work. If they’re being treated unfairly, they might even know it. And without evidence to prove it, they’re unlikely to complain to their senators or the courts.
It’s hard to imagine a state legislator who wouldn’t support the basic value of equal pay for equal work. They should prove it not just with words but with their votes.