Equal pay, sick leave, put workers rights in focus for state legislatures


Montana is taking up an equal pay for equal work initiative and the Governor has created a new task force to deal with the issue. The task force will be co-chaired by Commissioner of Labor & Industry Pam Bucy and Department of Administration Director Sheila Hogan and has the backing of business, education, nonprofit, and community leaders statewide. The initiative is notable as pay disparities between the genders as well as between ethnic groups is rampant throughout the country and so far, Congress has blocked any move to correct this at the federal level.

“Fifty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law,” said Governor Bullock. “In 1963 women were paid 59 cents for every dollar that men were paid for the same work. In 50 years, we’ve only managed to close the wage gap by 18 cents to 77 cents nationwide, and we have a long way to go.”

Montana already has an established tradition of bucking monied interests that might want to keep the system as it is. They had one of the more aggressive sets of campaign finance laws in the country and led the charge against the Citizens United ruling. If the state takes up this issue with the same level of force it could have a ripple effect in other states.

Governor Bullock has charged the Task Force with gathering information, furnishing advice, and providing recommendations on policies and actions to ensure that Montana workers earn equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender. The Governor noted in a statement that he wants Montana to be an equal pay leader that sets national standards for public-private policy partnerships on closing the wage gap.

“Montana women earn only 67% of what men earn, putting Montana at 39th place for pay equity in the nation,” said Bullock. “I’d match the Montana work ethic up against any other state in the nation, and 39th place for pay equity is unacceptable.”

Other states could use a task force like this as well, Mother Jones recently noted the stunning wage gaps throughout Silicon Valley, which has remained one of the pockets of employment in the US post crisis. In that piece, data shows that women make just $0.49 for every dollar a man makes. This is an especially troubling trend as many other states rush to bring silicon valley companies to their economies to create technology jobs, which are thought to be higher paying.

Louisiana is currently examining a bill that would force employers to pay women the same as men, although Governor Jindhal has yet to comment on whether he will sign it. Senate Bill 153 by Sen. Edwin Murray, (D-New Orleans) would require equal pay regardless of gender and would allow women to report wage disparities if they find out that they exist. The bill would close a gap between state law and the Lily Ledbetter Act President Obama recently signed into law that expanded the timeline for reporting. Few states have clear reporting structures for wage issues. Workers will often keep problems with wages and working conditions to themselves without a clear understanding of the laws or a clear reporting mechanism. This is especially true in states where workers are “at will,” employees and can be fired without cause.

Some states however, are going the other way and making it harder for workers to be treated fairly. Florida Governor Rick Scott recently signed a bill that makes it impossible for municipalities to enact paid sick leave legislation, making it harder for workers of any gender to take time off when they are sick. The knock on effects of this bill will hit women harder, if they face a wage gap which would only be exacerbated by taking unpaid sick days. The lack of sick days also creates significant public health concerns for workers in professions like food service, where colds and other illnesses can be more easily transmitted through direct interfacing with the public as well as food items. This was one of the principal arguments in support for a sick leave bill in New York City aimed at helping service workers take sick days without losing their jobs.

The Florida law was backed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group made up of business interests that also sponsored bills to curb municipal broadband. The bill passed just as Orange County, Florida which includes Orlando was set to vote on a countywide sick leave measure. Currently, the only state with mandated statewide sick leave is Connecticut. Other large cities, such as San Francisco have passed sick leave measures. However, the ALEC playbook on blocking municipal authority is well established through the municipal broadband bills and similar bills to the one in Florida could surface in other states.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg who has previously taken what he considers to be public health stances against smoking, trans fats and soda, vetoed paid sick leave for workers, establishing a somewhat quixotic public health platform. The city council has vowed to override the veto, although no action has been taken yet.