Pay Equity Helps Workers in Local Government, Too

Carol Flynn: “I didn’t think we’d ever be able to spread it to the local units of government. But we did.”

In 1984, two years after pay equity became law for state employees, the Legislature passed a similar bill for local government. Like the state version, the local legislation passed easily: 104-20 in House, unanimously in Senate. That was the last time things went so well.

Since then, there have been repeated attempts – some successful – to weaken the local law. A 2001 report listed the Local Government Pay Equity Act as one of the six state mandates that local officials complain about the most. In 2012, tea-party legislators tried to repeal the local law entirely.

“The state really was a lot easier,” says Nina Rothchild, who was commissioner of the Department of Employee Relations when the laws were implemented. “You had a single pay system, you had an evaluation system in place, it was implemented when people had a real commitment, and you had a positive labor-management relationship.”

A different playing field

Those factors did not always exist in the 1,500 cities, counties, towns, and school districts. Despite the state supplying software, advice and assistance, about one-third of local jurisdictions missed the original deadline.

Some local governments – egged on by outside consultants who pocketed big money – used pay equity as an excuse to re-do their entire job classification systems. Some then used the new results to justify raises not for underpaid women, but for upper-level managers, most of whom were male.

Episodes like these prompted the Legislature to clarify the law several times, increase penalties and, in 1990, re-emphasize the law’s main purpose: to eliminate sex-based pay disparities.

But local jurisdictions didn’t necessarily have an extra pot of money to make pay equity work, the way the state did. As a result, some used pay equity to pit workers against each other. “It really could become a zero-sum game real fast,” says Peter Benner, former executive director of AFSCME Council 6. “You had some jerks on the employers’ side who said for every nickel the clerical worker is going to get, we’re going to take this away from other people in the same bargaining unit. It was much rockier to implement.”

Still, when the dust settled, about 30,000 local government employees received equity increases, averaging $2,400 a year. Most of them were clerical workers, food service workers, and school aides.

The overall cost actually was lower than it had been for the state: Local payrolls increased only 2.6 percent. More than 95 percent of local jurisdictions currently are in compliance with pay equity.