CASPER, Wyo. — A comprehensive review of 228 occupations in Wyoming recently showed women here earned on average 32 cents less for every dollar compared with their male counterparts — the highest such wage gap in the nation.
The causes for the gap varied and were disputed by some. One side attributes the gap to the nature of Wyoming’s energy-centric economy and other factors, including education and firm size, while others have questioned the completeness of the data behind it, particularly in the retail sector. Those on the other side of the argument argue that women were generally paid less in general, even in high skilled fields like engineering, where women were paid only 89 cents on the dollar.
This week Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, introduced drafts of several bills intended to help eliminate the possibility of wage discrimination. The bills would, among other things, improve wage transparency in the workplace and increase penalties for those who might purposefully pay less based on one’s gender.
Some of the draft legislation would address wages specifically. One of the bills would bar employers from prohibiting employees to discuss their pay between themselves, including restrictions to protect employees from discrimination or retaliation from discussing their wages. The bill explicitly outlines that there’s no obligation for a private employer to disclose their wages, a stipulation that Connolly said one industry leader told her “seemed fair.”
“I urge the committee to pass this bill,” said Connolly, “and we’ll do the work to make sure that we have every major industrial sector behind it when we get it to the floor.”
Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper, argued that “disclosing everything,” in his view, could potentially cause “unrest” among employees, a concern corroborated by Sen. Brian Boner, R-Converse County, who said he wanted to hear from other sectors for more information. Connolly said that this bill was meant mostly to make sure workers could not be fired for discussing their wages, but also to give female employees leverage in wage negotiations, saying that women often negotiate raises differently than men do.
Rep. Mike Gierau, a Democrat who owns a business of his own in Teton County, said he typically encouraged employees not to discuss wages but they have anyway, and he hired an H.R. director to address it. Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, said he would vote against it and urged everyone else on the committee to vote against it, saying that employers like Wyoming for its lack of regulations, suggesting that introducing one new regulation might eventually lead to more.
The bill passed, with Reps. Marti Halverson, R-Etna, and Clarence Styvar, R-Laramie County, voting against, joined by Boner and Bouchard.
Another bill would regulate wages for public employees. While Connolly noted public salaries are generally quite equitable, the bill would provide for wage information in public offices – to be reported every two years – and would require pay rate adjustments to assure pay equity between male and female employees as needed.
Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, noted that state law already calls for equitable pay for public employees and questioned what was “broken” with the current system and whether or not it would lead to a male having his pay lowered as a result of a wage study. (It wouldn’t, Connolly said, as it would violate the Equal Pay Act of 1963.)
“What this does is it obligates a good hard look at that Hay Study and to make adjustments accordingly,” said Connolly, referring to a 2015 report on public sector compensation in Wyoming. “That’s it. That was the notion that we should make sure we have our house in order before we do anything with the private sector.”
The bill being introduced will also call on the state’s economic development efforts – particularly Endow – to “encourage new and existing businesses to employ best practices to reduce the wage gap between men and women in the state” by, among other efforts, providing entrepreneurs with resources to help ensure pay equity between male and female employees and to provide funding through programs like Startup: Wyoming and Kickstart: Wyoming only to those who commit to efforts to help solve the wage gap.
Sweeney expressed some concern that the Endow Council or the Business Council wouldn’t be sufficiently equipped to enforce some of these programs, however Connolly said she had a “stand-up drink” with Gov.-elect Mark Gordon to discuss the bill and ensure its successful implementation.
The bill was moved forward by the committee with three ‘no’ votes from Clem as well as Bouchard and Styvar.
Another proposed modification outlines specific penalties for those found in violation of the state’s equal pay provisions, which passed the House last year 60-0, upping the penalty for a violation of the equal pay statute from $200 to $500. Styvar, Bouchard and Rep. Tim Hallinan, R-Gillette, voted against it.
During Tuesday’s discussion, representatives from several groups spoke to the importance of pay parity.
Tara Muir, the public policy director for the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, advocated for wage equality as a means of women being able to leave abusive relationships, saying the number one barrier for those women is often economics.
“If we can’t be a state where we can empower women to know I’m getting a fair wage, that ‘I can’t keep a roof over mine or my children’s head,’ then she’s not going to leave. That’s the number one question we ask, why women don’t just leave: because she’s scared to death of what’s going to happen to her. A wage gap is such a small piece of that, but it’s such an important piece.”
The implementation of these bills, others who spoke said, could open the door for further research on the issue, something an officer with the state’s largest labor union said was well overdue.
“We keep kicking this can down the road, and it amazes me that we have this wage inequality in the state of Wyoming just because of your sex, if you’re a male or a female,” said Kim Floyd, executive secretary of the Wyoming AFL-CIO, who called for a further study of the issue. “
Halverson, who joined with Connolly to help commission the original report, urged everyone to read it, saying that while some areas of state law could be tightened, she was generally encouraged by its initial findings.
“There’s a lot of good news in here, and maybe a little work that needs to be done,” said Halverson. “A big takeaway for me is, for the most part, women are doing what they want, they’re working where they want, they’re making what they want, they’re working as long as they want. There are exceptions to the rule, but that was my takeaway from the report.”
“If anyone thinks there is rampant discrimination, systemic, widespread discrimination which Rep. Connolly and I both feared, they are mistaken,” she added. “There are pockets we need to address, but I would urge everyone to sit down and read the report and know that as a rule, Wyoming works for women.”