House, Senate Democrats promote equal pay ideal

Friday marked the seventh anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and at a press conference marking the anniversary at the Alaska Capitol, Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, was smiling. But she wasn’t happy.

“You may see us smiling up here, but we’re very angry,” she said.

Seven years after President Barack Obama signed a measure making it easier to file complaints over unfair pay practices, national statistics still show that men average higher salaries than women, even in the same profession.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was intended to ban pay discrimination based on gender, but in Alaska “we have one of the most significant pay gaps in the United States,” said Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage.

Tarr and Gardner were joined by Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, and some of their male Democratic colleagues in a press conference mirroring others across the country on Friday. The intent was to raise awareness of the national pay gap.

On average, Alaska women earn 67 cents for every dollar an Alaskan man makes, Tarr said, referring to a report compiled by Alaska YWCA. Some of that difference is because Alaska’s male-dominated industries (oil drilling, construction, commercial fishing) tend to pay more than industries favored by women (teaching, finance, office work).

Not all of the gap is due to that difference, however, and both Tarr and Gardner have introduced legislation to literally and figuratively fill the gap. House Bill 197, filed by Tarr last year, calls for an annual report to track how much, if at all, the gap is closing. (More significantly, it also calls for a $15 per hour minimum wage starting in 2017.)

Gardner’s Senate Bill 153, introduced on Jan. 21, definitively states that an employer can’t pay men and women differently for “work that is substantially similar.”

It also guarantees the right for workers to talk to each other about their pay.

Both bills face an uphill struggle to get a hearing, let alone pass the Republican-dominated House and Senate, but Tarr said there’s plenty that can be done to address the issue outside the Legislature.

“Have a conversation with friends,” she suggested. “Changing the sort of culture around this we have to do.”

Simply talking about salaries and who is being paid what in the office raises awareness that there is a problem. Trading tips for salary negotiations can make a difference.

“It’s about educating ourselves and each other,” Gardner said.

The Alaska YWCA (formerly known as the Young Women’s Christian Association and now an organization dedicated to eliminating racism and empowering women) has begun a campaign dedicated to eliminating the pay gap by 2025, and representatives of the YWCA were on hand Friday, as were members of the Alaska Women’s Lobby. At the table with the three female Anchorage lawmakers were three younger girls, each holding signs calling for equal pay.

Janae Reese, a Thunder Mountain high school junior, explained that at current rates of improvement, male and female pay won’t be equal until the year 2142.

“While it’s great that we’re taking steps in the right direction … I think we need to start taking leaps in the right direction,” she said.

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