Should Esther, the city clerk in Lake Wobegon, be paid $250 a month less than Joe who shovels the sidewalk and sweeps the floor in city hall? That was the kind of hypothetical question posed when the Minnesota Legislature passed the Local Government Pay Equity Act in 1984. Never mind that the fictional Esther was a widow, taking care of an aged mother, while Joe, the maintenance man, was single and a cousin of the mayor. That was just life. Everybody in town was glad Esther had a job. In those days only the town banker and city council members knew who got paid what.
Twenty-six years later, thanks to the pay equity bill, picture Jolene, now the town’s clerk who makes just a bit more than her husband, Brian, who plows the town’s streets in winter as a maintenance man. Together they support their three children, pay their property taxes, and are saving to help their kids through college. They are pleased that Aunt Esther’s social security is better than it would have been because under the law her pay was adjusted.
Now, there are efforts to repeal this pay equity law. In December, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce issued a report saying the legislation is too costly and no longer necessary. Some state legislators agreed and have introduced proposals for repeal. Apparently they agree that a penny saved is a penny earned, but where’s their sense of proportion when the state’s deficit is in the billions of dollars?
When a city administrator earns twice as much as a maintenance worker shouldn’t we be worrying about dollars instead of pennies? Shouldn’t legislators and taxpayers be worrying about local property taxes going up as local government aid goes down? Let’s be fair. With unemployment at record rates, many women are the breadwinners for their families. Minnesota has a long tradition of women working outside of the home. Today they are half of the workforce and generally the lower paid half. Why is a law benefitting them targeted for repeal?
In the past, many local units of government hired consultants to get their personnel and compensation records in order so they could comply with the law’s mandates. Now, with the state’s user-friendly internet reporting system, it only takes Jolene a couple of hours on the computer every three years to file the required report. The law helped cities, counties, libraries, school districts, and others improve their compensation systems and made them transparent.
Favoritism, nepotism and plain old discrimination were exposed. As one long-time mayor reported to a supporter of pay equity, “We should have paid that gal more a long time ago. Good thing we fixed that.” He was referring to his city clerk, a woman like our Esther.
Almost every piece of legislation has unintended consequences. This one has been good; it helped women and it helped governmental units systematize and clarify their compensation plans. But if you think the legislation is no longer necessary, it’s important to note that 25 percent of the current reports show there are still problems that need correcting. A few years ago when the reporting mandate was suspended temporarily, it was discovered that a significant drop off in compliance occurred. The age-old beliefs that women’s work is less valuable and that women don’t need money to support families is still alive and well. Women’s pay is generally still not equal to that of men, but groceries cost the same for everyone.
Now is not the time to repeal good laws. Without the required reporting, pay levels could too easily revert to the standards as people retired and new employees are hired. Families and communities would suffer. People like Esther, Jolene and their counterparts in Minnesota’s 1,500 local government jurisdictions would then have trouble paying their property taxes, helping their kids through college, and paying for everyday expenses.
What supporters of repeal don’t point out is that pay scales under the law aren’t set by the state. The law takes into account local pay norms. Repeal supporters also argue that there are federal and state remedies for unequal pay but they don’t say that these require employees to file a complaint and take legal action against their employer. That’s a tough thing to do, especially in a small town and in a public job. Let’s be fair and keep Minnesota’s pay equity laws. They work, not just for women, but for everybody.
Fraser is senior fellow emerita for the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Breen is former director at the Minnesota Legislative Commission on the Economic Status of Women.