Despite efforts on equal pay, the gender salary gap in California government jobs persists

When California updated its equal pay law in 2015, there was no shortage of fanfare. Women’s rights groups called it one of the toughest in the country. Gov. Jerry Brown, in a symbolic flourish, signed the new measure at a Richmond park named after feminist icon Rosie the Riveter.

But a state report released last fall underscored how far California has to go before its rhetoric matches reality when it comes to paying state workers. According to its findings, there is a 20.5% disparity in pay between female and male state employees — a wider gap than in the federal civil service and the private sector in California and nationwide.

The focus on the public sector pay gap is just one way the equal pay debate continues to reverberate through the state Capitol. Several measures this year offer new approaches to bring women’s earnings to parity with wages earned by male counterparts — in state government and the workforce as a whole.

“We are frankly at an ‘equal pay 2.0’ moment,” said state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), author of the 2015 law.

As lawmakers plumb deeper into the pay gap debate, the challenge before them becomes more daunting. While the mantra “equal pay for equal work” sounds straightforward, experts say lagging female earnings are rooted in unconscious bias and persistent undervaluing of jobs held by women — phenomena not easily solved by legislation.

The effort to shrink the pay gap for California state workers illustrates how thorny the issue can be.

At a February legislative hearing on the gender pay gap in civil service, Richard Gillihan, the director of the California Department of Human Resources, offered a blunt assessment.

“We know we have work to do; we know we need to do a better job,” Gillihan said, adding, “20.5% is unacceptable to all of us.”

The report by California’sDepartment of Human Resources, which surveyed state worker pay in 2014, estimated that California wouldn’t close its gender pay gap until 2044.

Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) has offered one solution: Make sure California’s equal pay laws apply to the public sector. He’s pushing a bill that would make public employers subject to existing law, including a 2015 update that expanded its purview to “substantially similar” work, not just identical jobs.

“If it's good enough for the private sector, it should also be good enough for the public sector,” Cooper said.

Cooper’s measure was inspired by pay discrepancies he saw working in the Legislature, which is exempt from the rigid salary classifications that apply in most state work. A Sacramento Bee investigation in 2015 found women working in the state Assembly made 92 cents for every dollar men made; in the state Senate, it was 94 cents on the dollar. The findings prompted the Senate to give raises to more than 70 employees last year to close the gap.

“Female chiefs of staff make less than their male counterparts — that's just plain wrong,” Cooper said.

It’s not entirely clear whether Cooper’s proposal is necessary; the state labor commissioner is currently reviewing claims filed by government employees under the Equal Pay Act. Supporters nonetheless cheer the proposal as eliminating any doubt that public sector jobs will be covered.

But for state workers outside the Capitol, the problems run deeper than men and women being paid unequally for doing the same job. State government jobs are classified into more than 3,500 positions, which strictly spell out salary.

“The issue that presents itself here is not as much one of disparate pay, but an unequal distribution of gender throughout the classification system,” said Joe DeAnda, spokesman for the California Department of Human Resources.

Women tend to work in sectors with lower salary ranges, such as administrative support or social work, while men tend to hold jobs with higher pay — particularly public safety jobs such as California Highway Patrol officer or firefighter. More than 61% of men in state government make more than $70,000, according to the Human Resources Department, while just 39% of women do.

Maia Downs, who works in Monterey Park as a state adoption specialist finding homes for neglected or abused children, said the salary range for her profession, which requires a graduate degree and is dominated by women, is significantly lower than those for jobs predominantly held by men.

“It's sanctioned discrimination,” said Downs of the low salary ranges for female-dominated positions.

DeAnda said negotiations related to salary and benefits are hashed out during the collective bargaining process. Downs said attempts by her union, AFSCME Local 2620, to use gender as a reason for higher salary ranges were unsuccessful.

“California should be leading by example. And they are imposing these equal pay laws on private industry, all the while hiding behind the excuse of collective bargaining,” Downs said. “And then they wonder why their gender pay gap is so high.”

To close the gap, the state says it’s focused on recruiting women into higher-paid jobs and encouraging upward mobility to help women scale the salary rungs.

But overhauling the pay classifications to ensure women’s work is better compensated is a thornier matter. It means reexamining long-held customs that place a greater value on certain professions — particularly high-risk public safety jobs.

“Getting there is not just a matter of legislation,” said Lauri Damrell, an employment lawyer and the co-chair of the state’s Commission on the Status of Women and Girls. “It’s a matter of getting our cultural norms to catch up.”

That hasn’t stopped lawmakers from trying to tackle the pay gap issue — in both the public and private sectors. One bill this year by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) would require large employers to make aggregate pay data publicly available, such as the differential between the mean salaries paid to men and women by job classification.

Another, by Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), would bar employers from seeking salary history from job applicants. Proponents argue that women often enter the workforce with lower salaries and are disproportionately hurt when prior compensation is used to determine their next job’s pay.

“One thing that bakes in inequity is when we base somebody's salary on what they previously made,” she said.

Eggman, who was among the legislators who convened the hearing on state worker pay this year, said she hopes to tackle the lingering pay gap affecting jobs predominately held by women.

“We are certainly looking at if there is some way that we can get to a root of that,” Eggman said. “Clearly we have a lot more work to do.”

melanie.mason@latimes.com

Follow @melmason on Twitter for the latest on California politics.

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