Pennsylvania Democrats Base Their Pay Equity Bill on Dubious Data

With Equal Pay Day occurring this Tuesday, Pennsylvania Democrats renewed a push to strengthen state and federal pay equity laws, citing workplace discrimination statistics that scholars often find questionable. 

State Senators Maria Collett (D-North Wales) and Steve Santarsiero (D-Doylestown) proposed a bill that would apply the commonwealth’s Equal Pay Law to a broader universe of workers and a greater scope of fringe benefits. The measure introduced unsuccessfully last session, would also bolster employees’ rights to inquire about the wages a company pays and permit workers to collect back wages from employers who courts find in breach of the law. The senators said these changes are necessary because women in Pennsylvania earn 79 cents for every dollar men receive, a disparity of over $10,000 per year.

“It is inconceivable that in 2023, women in Pennsylvania still earn less than their male colleagues for the same work,” Senator Santarsiero said in a statement. “This is not only about fairness. It is an important economic issue.”

U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) issued his own declaration in favor of the proposed federal Paycheck Fairness Act, which would enhance the Equal Pay Act of 1963. He, too, suggested there is widespread discrimination against women in terms of wages and benefits. 

“The gender pay gap hurts women at every stage of their careers,” he said. “By the time the average woman reaches retirement age, she is not as well-equipped as her male counterparts to retire comfortably. The divide is even wider for women of color.” 

The 79-cent Pennsylvania figure cited by Collett (pictured above, right) and Santarsiero (pictured above, left) jibes with national statistics often mentioned in debates about the so-called “wage gap.” The U.S. Department of Labor posits that women earn 82 cents for every dollar men earn. 

But many experts who have examined these data criticize pay activists’ frequent failure to control for all of the variables that affect earnings. Simply averaging all of men’s earnings and comparing them to all of women’s pay, these experts say, doesn’t give policymakers a proper grasp of the issue. 

“Men and women tend to make some different choices,” said Rachel Greszler, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Grover M. Hermann Center. “We have men and women in every field but there are some that are more dominated by women and some that are more dominated by men.” 

Greszler mentioned one factor skewing income statistics in males’ favor is their proneness to go into fields with higher safety risks. She further noted that men often decide to go into industry subcategories that are relatively high-paying, e.g., emergency-room medicine, rather than the family-doctor practices where more women work. 

Another element of income disparity relates to the choices many women make when they have children. Santarsiero couched this matter in terms of “bias against working mothers,” but Greszler said there is evidence to suggest that women often weigh potential income gains against time with their kids and frequently prefer the latter. 

She cited Federal Reserve Board findings that women have been willing to give up 7.3 percent of their annual pay on average to secure a part-time work option, whereas men would cede only one percent. Meanwhile, men have been open to giving up 3.4 percent of their earnings for jobs with better potential income growth while women have been willing to cede only 0.6 percent.

Such priority differences were borne out in a Harvard University study of workers at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, a unionized workplace where employers could never negotiate a better pay arrangement with a male employee than with a female one. Even in such an environment, women earned 11 cents less per dollar than men — a result of women often choosing to take more time off and take fewer overtime hours.

“Very generally, men tend to go after the jobs that have a higher income trajectory, and women — particularly if they have young children — are going after jobs that give them more flexibility and more autonomy, control over their work,” Greszler said. 

She said the increase in opportunities for remote work seen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic should generate optimism about women’s ability to choose both time with their children and a focus on career. The greater availability of paid family leave and the expansion of the gig economy also contribute to a more flexible work environment, she added. 

She also cautioned that attempts to force the workforce into a more equity-conscious paradigm by, for instance, limiting options for paid time off actually hurt women who want to balance work and family. 

“Equal pay is the law of the land,” she said. “But equal outcomes aren’t the law of the land because we’re not going to impose choices on people. We want them to be free to make decisions that are best for them.”

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Steve Santarsiero”by Steve Santarsiero. Photo “Maria Collett” by Maria Collett. Background Photo “Pennsylvania Senate Chamber” by Bestbudbrian. CC BY-SA 3.0.




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