State Senate Plays Politics with Pay Equity


Accessorized in red to signify indebtedness, pay equity advocates rallied at City Hall on Thursday morning to support state and federal legislation to bridge the long-standing income gap between women and men who perform comparable work. But in terms of political theater, that City Hall protest had nothing on what happened in Albany earlier this week.

The coalition, Equal Pay NYC, joined City Councilmember Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights), chair of the Women’s Issues committee, for a news conference prior to a Council hearing on two pay equity resolutions. Their calls anticipate Equal Pay Day on April 22, which symbolizes the time when women’s wages catch up to men’s wages from the previous year.

“When women dominate an industry, or a line of work, the pay goes down,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW-NYC. “Even in the New York school districts,” she added, “the cleaners, which are dominated by men, make more than the women-dominated teacher assistants and secretaries who help run the schools.”

Infuriating examples aside, proponents may just as well have worn red to demonstrate their outrage toward a specious piece of pay equity legislation passed in the State Senate on Monday. The bill sponsored by Senator Joseph Robach (R-Greece), chair of the Labor Committee, would have the Department of Labor study the reasons for pay differences between men and women and minorities, and it would increase penalties for employers that practice wage discrimination.

In other words, pay equity supporters say, Robach would give lip service to pay equity in an election year. The third-term senator from the Rochester area is a 2008 target of Democrats seeking his seat in the upper chamber where Republicans hold a slim but powerful two-seat majority.

“That legislation is nothing more than an attempt to get attention for a marginal member,” said State Senator Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington), who dismissed the Robach maneuver in a telephone interview on Wednesday. Johnson sponsors another piece of legislation, the New York State Fair Pay Act, considered by supporters to be a more genuine solution to the problem. Although the Fair Pay Act has passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly every year since 2002, it has repeatedly expired in the Senate Labor Committee.

So pay equity proponents were surprised when labor committee chair Robach, historically an opponent, appeared at a rally in Albany on April 3 and expressed his support for ending wage discrimination. But according to accounts, he did not commit to moving the Fair Pay Act out of committee. Instead, he later shocked pay equity supporters by crafting the dubious pay equity study bill that was rushed through committee and onto the floor for a vote on Monday. He effectively beat to the punch Johnson, who had planned to motion to petition the Fair Pay Act for a vote on Tuesday.

“It’s inexcusable what the Senate majority did,” fumed Johnson.

To add insult to paycheck injury, when Johnson made his motion to petition on Tuesday, Robach and other Republicans simply walked out of the chamber to avoid going on the record about the Fair Pay Act. Watch this video of the incident from the Albany Times Union’s Capitol Confidential blog.

The study on the causes of pay inequity is due by May 1, 2009, nearly six months after the fall elections. Convenient.