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Elected officials participate in Women’s Equal Pay forum at Kirkland City Hall
Adriana Hutchings spent her college years at Western Washington University like many college students - studying, working part-time, and fairly broke.
In 1993, her $4.80 an hour waitressing job coupled with her parents generosity of $155 a month, was all she could rely on as she worked six, seven days a week, ate rice, beans and Top Ramen, and worked toward her education.
“I always thought wage discrimination was something that happened at a corporate level until it happened to me,” Hutchings told a room full of women at an Equal Pay forum on April 24.
One day, Hutchings walked into her boss’s office at the small, family-owned restaurant and noticed a Post-it note on a bulletin board that read her male colleague’s name and “$5.50 an hour” underneath.
“I was being paid $4.80 an hour for the exact same job and that’s nearly a dollar less per hour for the exact same job,” she recalled. “And I admit, I was really shocked, kind of angry and really confused.”
After grappling with what her next move was, Hutchings finally confronted the restaurant owner. Although he denied it and gave excuses at first, Hutchings held her ground and was able to prove the discrepancy.
“He had the audacity to say because Fred’s parents owned restaurants in Seattle that he had more qualifications than me,” she said, noting Fred was not her colleague’s real name. “But I was friends with Fred and I knew he never actually worked in any of those restaurants.”
Hutchings reflected on the income she had missed out on simply because someone had believed “Fred’s work was more important than” hers, even though in actuality she had more experience.
“It can be really hard to find out if you’re paid unfairly and, in fact, employers will retaliate against employees who discuss their wages with coworkers and in some instances it’s a fireable offense,” she said. “It is time to put an end to policies that belong in an episode of ‘Mad Men.’”
One of the ways local Congresswoman Suzan DelBene hopes to keep those “Mad Men” policies at bay is through the Paycheck Fairness Act, H.R. 377, of which she is an original co-sponsor.
Although the Equal Pay Act was enacted in 1963, the average woman in Washington still earns 76 percent of what the typical man does, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s $11,000 less per year than male counterparts and $15,000 less a year for women who live in King County, according to Marilyn Watkins with the Economic Opportunity Institute.
“One of the real problems is that, especially when it comes to equal pay issues, so many women don’t know,” Watkins said. “A lot of corporations, a lot of companies actually forbid people to talk about their pay with their coworkers.”
If passed, the Paycheck Fairness Act would protect employees against retaliation for discussing salaries with colleagues, require employers to prove that pay disparities exist for legitimate, job-related reasons, and remove several legal obstacles for women who do discover there’s inequality in their workforce. Additionally, it would create a negotiating skills training program for women and girls while also recognizing the excellence in pay practices and provide assistance to all businesses to help them with equal pay practices.
The bill currently has 207 co-sponsors, but House of Representatives leadership has refused to allow a vote on this important legislation to close the wage gap, officials said.
“Even though [the policies] are so common sense, there’s a lot of opposition from the people who are benefitting from the current system and we have some who believe ‘Well, leave the private sector alone, private employers know what they’re doing, they shouldn’t be told ever what to do under any circumstances and therefore, even though we know it might be better for us all in the end, we just can’t support it,’” Watkins said.
Cofounder of MomsRising and Kirkland resident Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner said she discovered inequality firsthand, much in the same way Hutchings did.
“I grew up believing that women had mostly achieved equality in the work place. That is my confession,” Rowe-Finkbeiner said. “But when my first child was born, I quickly learned that was a big mistake, that was in fact not true.”
Rowe-Finkbeiner had to quit her full-time job to stay home with her son who was born with an immune deficiency illness. Luckily, she was able to lean on her husband, who had adequate health care and income. But she said she was aware her situation could have been an “outright disaster,” as her own mother was single most of her childhood.
“For too many, in the United States of America, motherhood is a fast lane to poverty,” she said. “In fact, having a baby is the leading cause of poverty in the United States right now.”
Since co-founding MomsRising in 2006, Rowe-Finkbeiner has heard countless stories of moms being discriminated against.
“Cynthia wrote in and she said, ‘I work for an advertising firm. At one event it was obvious just how many women worked for the executive director, so I asked him why. He told me quite bluntly, I can pay them less. I was 23 and in shock. I hadn’t yet learned I was less valuable than a man,’” Rowe-Finkbeiner said.
What’s more, Rowe-Finkbeiner stated women without kids make about 90 cents to a man’s dollar, while married moms make 73 cents and single mothers make about 50 cents to a man’s dollar.
“We have to address this because these are not isolated incidents,” she said. “Eighty-one percent of women in the United States have children by the age of 44 years old and all are facing what we call a ‘maternal wall.’”
Rowe-Finkbeiner said this is why anti-discrimination legislation, such as DelBene’s Paycheck Fairness Act, is needed.
About 40 percent of the wage gap is unaccounted, Watkins said, which makes up factors such as which jobs women are geared toward and whether the job is part time or a woman’s qualifications. But more needs to be done to attend to the 60 percent, she said.
And one approach is by implementing paid sick and safe leave for all employees and, specifically, mothers, Watkins said.
The Washington House passed the Paid Sick and Safe Leave bill in January, however, the bill died in the Senate.
“There’s that piece of equal pay for equal work, but there’s also this large issue of making sure that all jobs, whatever they are, even if it’s a child care teacher or working in a little store or anywhere else - a nonprofit - that if you’re working hard and doing a job that benefits society, you shouldn’t be struggling to get by,” Watkins said. “You should be able to care for your kids, deal with family emergencies, take care of your own health, honor your parents if they’re aging.”
DelBene is also a co-sponsor of the Healthy Families Act, H.R. 1286, which, if passed, would allow employers who employ 15 or more for each working day during 20 or more workweeks a year, to permit each employee to earn at least one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked.
Rowe-Finkbeiner recalled how because one woman named Barbara didn’t have paid sick days, she had to postpone taking her daughter to the doctor for an ear infection. The inaction ultimately left her with permanent hearing damage.
“I hear so many stories about women in our region who are working really hard and doing jobs that they love and care about but they end up going back to work within a couple of weeks of giving birth,” said an emotional Watkins. “I’ve talked to so many women who have heartbreaking stories of family struggle and it’s so unnecessary. Not only for their families, but for the whole society and economy.”
Rep. Cyrus Habib, Rep. Roger Goodman and a legislative aid representing Rep. Larry Springer were among the elected officials in attendance. Deputy Mayor Penny Sweet, Councilwoman Doreen Marchione and Councilwoman Shelley Kloba also attended the event.
Although Kloba said combatting the issue of equal pay is a more complicated issue, she did have some ideas about how Kirkland could get involved in helping workers out with paid sick and safe leave.
“We have just started taking the first steps in just trying to find out the demographics of our labor pool and our workforce here in Kirkland,” Kloba said in an interview. “And out the demographics of our labor pool and our workforce here in Kirkland, how many people work here who don’t live here? How many of our businesses currently offer paid sick and safe leave?”
Kloba said not only does improving workers paid sick and safe leave situation have a positive economic impact and public health benefit, but there’s also the competitiveness standpoint to consider.
“A large part of our employees here do not live in Kirkland and so, for instance, if I’m a worker in Seattle and I’m starting to think about getting a job and I look at Seattle, for instance, if they pass their $15 minimum wage law, they’ve already got paid sick and safe leave laws, we’ve got tolling on the bridge and Metro cuts,” Kloba said. “How do those decisions change the equation for somebody who might have thought about commuting to the Eastside and taking a job in Kirkland?”
Seattle officials currently enforce their own version of the law, the Paid Sick and Safe Time Ordinance, which was enacted in September 2012.
Along with members of MomsRising and the Economic Opportunity Institute, members from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the Washington State Labor Council, the Washington State Association of Head Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program joined Kirkland Chamber of Commerce members, Teamsters, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members, Machinists, Women’s Funding Alliance, and others in Kirkland City Hall’s Peter Kirk Room for the Equal Pay forum.