A law that made it easier for women, the elderly and disabled workers to seek financial recourse for failing to earn as much as their colleagues is close to being repealed under the state’s Republican administration.
The pay equity bill was passed into law by the Democratic-controlled Legislature in 2009, largely through the efforts of Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay. It allowed workers for the first time to seek punitive and compensatory damages in circuit court for pay inequity and other discriminatory practices in the workplace.
Prior to the law, workers could sue for back pay and attorney fees under the federal Equal Pay Act. Proponents of the pay equity bill, however, argued that recourse in federal court alone did not provide enough protection and financial compensation for those who experienced wage discrimination in the workplace.
With women nationally still earning 78 cents on the dollar compared to men, supporters of the state’s 2-year-old pay equity law say now is not the time to quit working for pay equality.
“The idea that we don’t need to continue working on this issue is not only short-sighted but very regressive,” says Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, an organization that lobbied against the repeal of the pay equity bill. “Unfortunately, this is typical of the Walker administration and the conservative majority in the Assembly and Senate.”
The bill to repeal the pay equity law, SB 202, was authorized by one of the more conservative members of the Legislature, Sen. Glenn Grothman, R- West Bend.
The Legislature has until April 5 to send the bill to Gov. Scott Walker. By law, the governor has six days to act on a bill once it’s sent to him. However, he doesn’t have to actively sign the bill for it to take effect. If he fails to act on it, the bill becomes law automatically after six days, under a provision in the state statutes.
A spokesman with Walker’s office said the governor is still evaluating the bill.
“I’m very confident he will do nothing to stop this bill from becoming law,” says Dana Schultz, state director of 9to5 Milwaukee, an organization that advocates for issues that affect low-income and working women. “The bill does nothing to create jobs. If anything, lack of pay equity costs the state money.”
Schultz says studies show that full-time, working women in Wisconsin lose roughly $9.2 million in pay annually because of the wage gap. Because the loss of wages, in many cases, translates to the inability of women to pay for groceries, cover utility bills or afford a mortgage or rent, many women are forced to turn to public subsidies to cover these costs, Schultz says.
“I think by repealing this law, Republicans are encouraging and supporting companies that don’t believe women should be paid and treated fairly,” Sen. Hansen says.
Hansen cites data compiled by the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau to argue that his bill was helping to close the income-disparity gap.
According to the non-partisan agency:
• Median female earnings as a percentage of median male earnings rose by 3 percent in Wisconsin between 2009 and 2010. Only four states had larger increases.
• Wisconsin jumped 12 spots in the gender earnings parity rankings between 2009 and 2010, from 36th to 24th.
Hansen says Grothman argued the repeal is necessary because of the number of lawsuits bogging down the courts.
“That’s a lie,” Hansen says. “It’s a total fabrication.”
Lance Burri, an aide to Grothman, says the federal law, dubbed “equal pay for equal work,” protects against pay inequality. To say Republicans are doing away with equal pay isn’t true, he says, because “we can’t.”
He says Hansen’s bill added an extra layer of bureaucracy to the process by giving employees the option to sue for punitive and compensatory damages in circuit court.
There was a fear with Hansen’s bill, Burri says, that it would take longer for complaints to work their way through the legal system, “which is bad for employees and employers.”
Hansen’s bill did, however, put a 60-day window on an employee’s ability to bring a legal case against her employer. The window opened after a state hearing examiner made a finding that some sort of discrimination did in fact occur against the employee.
Burri added there was concern in the business community that there would be frivolous lawsuits filed by employees in the hopes of settling out of court with their employers instead of going to court.
“We’d rather have our businesses focused on doing business,” Burri says.
Groups that lobbied to repeal the state’s pay equity law include, among others, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Wisconsin Automobile & Truck Dealers Association, the Wisconsin Builders Association, the Wisconsin Car Rental Alliance, the Wisconsin Grocers Association, the Wisconsin Hospital Association, the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association, the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.