In 1996, women and pay equity advocates around the world observed the first Equal Pay Day, a public awareness event that sheds light on exactly how many additional days into the new year women have to work to earn what men earned the previous year.
More than two decades later, the battle for pay equity is still very much a reality. This year’s Equal Pay Day is today — April 4.
Interestingly, 1996 was also the year I began my first term in the State legislature, after dealing with multiple forms of discrimination, including pay inequity, while working in TV News.
At one station where I worked, I discovered that the male anchor with whom I did the news each night was not only being paid substantially more, but that management was not going to raise my salary to at least match his own.
I was an Emmy Award-winning journalist with decades of experience and I still found myself in a position where I couldn’t get equal pay for equal work. It wasn’t even really equal work; as he couldn’t always figure out when to change cameras, or what page of copy he was on.
When he first arrived at the station nearly two years earlier, it quickly became very clear that he was not able to do the job. Within days, the general manager requested that I do everything I could to make him look good.
I’m a team player, so I devised ways to help him look like he knew what he was doing. I would put my hand on his knee, moving it to the left or right when he had to change cameras, and constantly checked his paper script to make sure everything was in order. (Even though we had a Teleprompter, it was important to have a script just in case there were problems with the prompter.)
Of course, there was no way to prevent him from starting the show one evening with, “Good evening, this is Your Name with the 6 o’clock news.” I was offered a job at another TV station in the same city, where I would make more than the guy who didn’t know his own name was making, and I took it.
This wasn’t the first time I experienced pay equity discrimination. Years earlier, I was told that I didn’t deserve the same starting salary as a male colleague with equal responsibilities, simply because “he had a family to support.” The boss made it clear there was no reason for further discussion.
Things have gotten better in the ensuing years, but women in New Jersey still earn less than their male colleagues. On average now we are paid 80.4 cents for every dollar that men are paid.
The signing of the Federal Lilly Ledbetter Act was a huge step forward in the fight for equal pay – an achievement that I and so many of my colleagues, Republican and Democrat, strongly support.
However, for those who face five, 10 or even 20 years of pay equity discrimination, these protections aren’t nearly strong enough. Federal law only allows for the collection of two years of back pay.
New Jersey needs a law that is stronger than the Lilly Ledbetter Act, so that employees who are unfairly compensated for years on end can get back every dime they earned.
We need a law that businesses can easily comply with, so employees have no trouble obtaining the payroll records they need to successfully seek justice.
The equal pay legislation proposed by Senate Democrats last year wasn’t perfect, but I supported their attempts to override Gov. Christie’s conditional veto of that bill because the fight for equal pay is too important to let politics get in the way.
I believe that there is a better solution than the current equal pay bill on the table, which is why I have been working for the last several months with the sponsors of S992 and the governor to find common ground.
I am happy to report the governor is working with us on a compromise.
New Jersey has long been a leader in the fight for equal rights. This is a reputation we worked hard to earn. Those facing pay equity discrimination work hard, too. We can’t afford to see our hard work go to waste and neither can they.
I remember a time, not that long ago, when elected leaders would not hesitate to reach across the aisle, especially when it meant protecting the people we were elected to serve. That shouldn’t change based on party politics or the popular movement of the moment.
I know that we can pass a law that closes the gender pay gap in New Jersey, but only if we work together. I have fought for equal pay for all of us for years, and I won’t give up now. I hope my colleagues will join me.