Equal pay compact sees rapid expansion

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BRATTLEBORO — In late January, the Vermont Commission on Women celebrated a milestone — the 100th signer of the state's equal pay compact.

On Tuesday in Brattleboro, Windham Regional Commission became the compact's 127th signatory.

That kind of growth — a 25-percent boost in less than four months — is a positive sign for those who are continuing to fight to bring women's wages up to the same level as men's.

The compact is in many ways a symbolic gesture.

But its significance wasn't lost on a U.S. Department of Labor official who visited Brattleboro on Tuesday to talk with businesses and officials about equal pay.

"We need to make more employers aware of the issues, (and) more women aware of what they might be able to do in terms of speaking up for themselves," said Jacqueline Cooke, a Boston-based regional administrator for the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau.

The stark facts of the gender pay gap weren't news to anyone who attended Tuesday's event: In Vermont, officials say, women earn about 84 cents for each dollar men are paid.

The state's numbers are better than the national average, but not by much. And the space between the U.S. and Vermont statistics appears to be narrowing: The U.S. Department of Labor in 2014 put the national gender pay gap at 79 percent, but a March report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said women earned 82 percent of what men earned in 2016.

This is despite the fact that federal and state laws outlaw pay discrimination based on sex. In fact, Vermont's equal pay law was updated and expanded just four years ago.

Advocates say the gap persists not because of overt, conscious wage discrimination, which they believe is rare. Rather, it's due to complex, interrelated factors including the types of work women perform and the fact that women are more likely to take time off from the workforce due to childcare or other family concerns.

"Even now, I think many people think that women choose lower-paying jobs, or they choose to be out of the workforce — and many of them do," Cooke said. "But sometimes, child care is expensive, and they might not be able to afford child care and have a low-paying job."

Cooke was invited by the Vermont Commission on Women to attend the Brattleboro meeting, which was held at Duo Restaurant. The site held significance because the restaurant is one of the signers of the commission's equal pay compact.

"There are a lot of equal pay compact signers in Windham County. This is one of the more active parts of the state," said Cary Brown, the commission's executive director. "We wanted to come down here to hear how it's going, to give some of the employers who signed the opportunity to connect with each other and share some stories, share some experiences. And then also to bring some new folks in to hear about it."

The online pledge campaign, which started in 2015, doesn't attempt to regulate employers' pay practices. There are no audits and no punitive measures built in.

Rather, Brown sees it as a vehicle for examination, discussion and support.

"The idea of the equal pay compact is to ask employers to think about what they're doing with their employees to make sure that everything is equitable," she said. "But also, more broadly than that, to think about the community and what they might be able to do to support closing that wage gap."

That outward focus is one reason Bellows Falls-based Chroma Technology signed the compact, said Angela Earle Gray, the company's human resources director.

"It's not just about us being a good employer," she said. "It's about our region being a good place for people to live and everyone being able to find opportunities."

Julie Lineberger operates two Wilmington businesses — LineSync Architecture and Wheel Pad L3C — that are listed on the equal pay compact. But she wishes there was no need to make such a pledge.

Lineberger recalled that, when she first signed up, she thought, "Why is this even a thing? You mean we need to have this thing?"

"Because I know the statistics, yes, we do need to have this thing," she said. "And I find it's ridiculous that we do. But I signed on because it's important."

The compact's growth is an important development for Lineberger.

"It's about time," she said. "People are actually taking it seriously, they're reviewing their own practices, and they're making it happen. It's a good thing."

Windham Regional Commission signed on this week as "an affirmation of our existing policies and approach, and being part of the larger group of signees to share ways to build upon and improve that approach," Executive Director Chris Campany said.

That type of support is a big part of the compact. The commission offers a list of strategies that businesses can use to recruit more women and to close the gender pay gap.

Those strategies go beyond hiring and wage negotiation, extending into topics like workplace culture, education and training, said Kerry Secrest, a Brattleboro resident who serves on the commission on women.

"It's how do we create an engaged workforce," Secrest said. "And if you have women in the workforce, what is it that their needs are in order to thrive."

The commission isn't the only entity pushing for equal pay in Vermont. State officials last month recognized "Equal Pay Day," an occasion that also included release of a new leadership report by Change the Story VT, an organization dedicated to improving women's economic status.

Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, believes there may be additional legislative remedies to further that goal.

"It is clear that there are some data points that need to be refined about where women work, what they get paid and how state programs can be more effective in connecting the dots," Stuart said at Tuesday's meeting.

Whatever the solution, Secrest said she's not discouraged by the persistent pay gap.

"I have two daughters, and there's a whole next generation to consider," she said. "It's better for me than it was for my mom, and I feel a commitment to make it better for my children."

Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.

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