Legislation can be a confusing matter. And so it is for the Equal Pay Enforcement Act passed in 2009.
On introducing the bill, state Sen. David Hansen said, "What this bill is about is restoring fairness to all workers in Wisconsin and their families, whether they are women who are being shortchanged even though they are doing the same job as the men next to them or the middle-aged worker who finds himself let go just short of retirement so his employer can avoid fulfilling their promise to provide for his retirement."
But wait a minute, federal law already protected women from wage discrimination. Why was this bill necessary? Well, it turns out that taking a case to federal court is very expensive (four to five times the cost of state court) and takes a lot of time. Perhaps this is why 30 percent of women-headed households in Wisconsin live below the poverty line.
Rep. Chris Taylor pointed out the wage disparities deprive Wisconsin families of $4,000 each year. The American Association of Women showed that, even after accounting for college major, occupation, hours worked and a host of other factors, women made 5 percent less than their male counterparts one year after graduation and 12 percent less after 10 years.
Prior to 2009 and since the repeal of this law, victims of discrimination could only sue for job reinstatement, back pay, costs and attorney fees. The 2009 law allowed victims to sue for compensatory and punitive damages up to $300,000 depending on seriousness and size of the company. Using state courts allowed for more opportunity to settle cases before going to trial.
You may ask what effect this law had on discrimination, given the fact that not a single case was ever filed in state courts. Since this law was passed, the median income for women as a percentage of male income rose 3 percent between 2009 and 2010. Only four states had larger increases. Since the Equal Pay Enforcement Act was passed in 2009, Wisconsin moved from 36th to 24th in gender earnings parity. Even then women earned $11,000 less a year than men. But lest you conclude this is merely a man/woman thing, the 2009 law also covered age, disability, race, religion and sexual orientation.
Why would anyone want this law to be repealed? At the urging of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, along with many other business organizations, state Sen. Glenn Grothman submitted a bill to repeal this law. He stated this law put Wisconsin "way out of whack" with other states. But did it?
Actually, 33 other states have similar laws with either no cap on damages or the same $300,000 cap Wisconsin had. Perhaps Grothman was right when he argued that men and women have different goals in life. Grothman stated, "You could argue that money is more important for men. I think a guy in their first job, maybe because they expect to be a bread winner someday, may be a little more money-conscious."
I don't agree and I don't think single mothers would either, nor would the other groups impacted by this repeal.
The Equal Pay Enforcement Act was repealed late in the evening of Feb. 22, 2012, when Gov. Scott Walker quietly signed Sen. Grothman's bill into law after a party line vote in both houses of the state legislature.
Don Vogt of Manitowoc is a retired probation/parole agent and former chairman of the Manitowoc County Board of Supervisors.