On August 31, 2015, Senate Bill 358 passed California legislation with a 39-0 vote. The “Fair Pay Act” was written by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democrat from Santa Barbara, and has been strongly supported by Gov. Jerry Brown who is expected to approve the bill when it reaches his desk.
The law will strengthen the existing Federal Equal Pay Act, requiring equal pay for “substantially similar work” regardless of gender. It will also prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who compare wages or inquire about the wages of coworkers. Fear of punishment or job loss has been a major obstacle for those attempting to learn if their wage is fair compared to coworkers.
From her website, Sen. Jackson states, “Equal pay isn’t just the right thing for women, it’s the right thing for our economy and for California. And it is long overdue. Families rely on women’s income more than ever before. Because of the wage gap, our state and families are missing out on $33.6 billion dollars a year. That money could be flowing into families’ pocketbooks, into our businesses and our economy. After years of dealing with a persistent wage gap, the time is now for women’s paychecks to finally reflect their hard work and true value.”
The new Fair Pay Act may be the toughest equal-pay bill in the U.S. The inclusion of the term “substantially similar” means, for example, hotel housekeepers (a job filled mostly by females) could challenge the higher wages paid to hotel janitors (mostly male) because their work is substantially similar.
Despite the Federal Equal Pay act, signed into law five decades ago by President John F. Kennedy, women’s wages still fall behind those of their male counterparts. When JFK made equal pay for equal work the law, women earned around 59 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Today that number is 77 cents—that’s less than ½ cent gain per year for 50 years. Hopefully the Fair Pay Act will finally close the gender gap in wage equality–a task that was begun over three decades ago on the Central Coast.
State’s Fair Pay Act is 30 Years Behind Pismo Beach
California has a long tradition of groundbreaking equal pay laws. This year marks the 32nd anniversary of the “Comparable Worth” resolution passed by the City Council of Pismo Beach. That resolution increased the salaries of female city employees to be equal to that of male city employees. Tireless supporter of the resolution, Dr. Nell Langford, proudly referred to Pismo Beach as “the most liberated city in the world” after Comparable Worth became a reality.
Dr. Langford worked with her then-husband, Bill Richardson, the Mayor of Pismo Beach at the time, to convince the City Council of the importance of Comparable Worth which utilized a scale of job evaluations to measure the worth of a position regardless of who filled it.
In separate interviews, both Dr. Langford and Richardson expressed enthusiasm over the Fair Pay Act and recalled the excitement of passing such innovative legislation at the city level more than 30 years ago.
Interview with Dr. Nell Langford
It’s been 32 years since you helped pass the historic Comparable Worth resolution in Pismo Beach. Why do you think it’s taking so long to close the gender wage gap? It’s historic for women to be devalued in all arenas and cultures. The same people who vote against equal pay are voting against environmental issues and other forms of civil justice. It’s also because people don’t know how to compare apples and oranges, how to compare the monetary value of a secretary to that of a construction worker, both being jobs largely dominated by gender. In the past it was about equal pay for equal w-o-r-k, not w-o-r-t-h as it should have been. That slowed progress too.
How did you develop the system for measuring comparable worth? The methodology to analyze job worth was developed in San Jose. We used the system that was already in place and the Pismo Beach City Council voluntarily voted for the resolution. Comparable Worth was measured by four main points: Know How, Accountability, Problem Solving and Working Conditions.
And those four points can measure any position’s worth, leaving gender out of it? Yes, I don’t know why it never took off.
Bill Richardson, the former Mayor of Pismo Beach and your former husband, credits you with working hard to get Comparable Worth passed. What inspired you to put so much effort into this issue? I have always wanted justice. The work of women is systemically devalued. When I first went to work my earnings were considered “pin money.” It was almost embarrassing for a woman to work, men were the bread earners. The prevailing ideology was that women were no more than fluff in the workplace. There was a personal element too. As a graduate student I was told by a professor in my department that I had no business working because I had a child. I wanted to apply for the Fulbright Scholarship but wasn’t allowed, women weren’t allowed. I got hired as a revolving lecturer at Cal Poly, had a PhD and was highly qualified, but watched as only men went on to the tenure track. In my career I was told I can’t have this or that because I was a woman. I saw what was happening to other women in the workplace. It built up.
Thanks to pioneers like you, Bill Richardson, Sen. Jackson and Gov. Brown, many younger women and men may never face wage inequality. How do we keep the next generation invested in issues like the Fair Pay Act? The number one issue in the world is economic equality. It affects everything else, but it also goes deeper than economic equality. On a very basic level we’ve made a wrong turn. Women’s voices must be heard. We need the feminine principle back. This is what is wrong all over the world.
Interview with Bill Richardson
How do you feel about the passing of the new Fair Pay Act? It’s a wonderful feeling to see equal pay become the standard. Back in 1983 we thought we were starting a trend, but it took 30 years for the state to catch up to us.
I read that Marian Mellow, the only woman on the Pismo Beach City Council at that time, was the one member who did not vote in favor of Comparable Worth. She abstained from voting. Was that surprising? Marion felt strongly that women deserved equal pay and it was never her intent to block the resolution. She was a bit of perfectionist and was unhappy with some of the details of the procedure. Abstaining was her protest. She knew the other members had voted for the resolution and that it would pass.
The construct of the Fair Pay Act seems similar to that of the Comparable Worth resolution. Yes, Comparable Worth was solid. It was tested to be practical and fiscally responsible and guess what? It didn’t break the city.
Why do you think it’s taken so long to pass a State law on pay equality? Money. Dr. Nell Langford wrote the plan and paid most of the legal fees related to Comparable Worth from her own pocket. It would never have been passed without her hard work. Back in those days there were a lot of conservatives who still felt like a woman’s place was in the home. There were many women working in high positions with a lot of responsibility that got paid less than the average house painter. Less pay was almost like a punishment for working.
What was the fallout from passing Comparable Worth? Almost all positive. A few conservatives and the union were against it, but most of the public supported the plan. Newspapers and other media from all over the state wanted to talk to us about it. Dr. Nell and I appeared on the Phil Donahue Show with a representative from the National Manufacturer’s Association who actually said manufacturers can’t afford to pay women the same as men. We were both invited to teach classes on comparable worth at UCSB and San Francisco State. Letters of support came in from all over the world. Geraldine Ferraro even wrote us a letter of congratulations.
It’s impressive how a change at the municipal level, and a small city at that, can inspire so many people, men and women, to think about an issue like pay equality. Sometimes you just have to be that voice in the wilderness. We saw something that was wrong and said “This has to be corrected.”