The state is being sued for discrimination against a female employee in the Department of Corrections. The Vermont Human Rights Commission says the state failed to provide equal pay to Lynne Silloway, an administrative services coordinator at the DOC.
Silloway claims she was paid significantly less than a male co-worker who had the same title, same duties and less seniority.
Robert Appel, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, says the Commission first received Silloway’s complaint two years ago "alleging that she was being paid $10,000 less than a male co-worker for performing substantially the same work."
After investigating Silloway’s allegation, Appel says the Commission attempted to resolve the issue through a mediator before deciding to join her in suing the DOC.
This is the first known case the Commission is pursuing since the equal pay law went into effect in 2002. But Appel worries the case is not unique.
"Our country has a sad history of undervaluing the contributions of female workers," Appel says. "I think the bigger concern, from a systemic perspective, is whether this is an isolated incident or the tip of an iceberg."
But the Shumlin administration is defending the state against Silloway’s complaint. Human Resources Commissioner Kate Duffy tells the Associated Press that Shumlin supports equal pay for equal work. Duffy attributes any discrepancy in wages in the case to the mechanics of a "step system" for civil servants, and because the male employee had transferred from another job in state government.
Cheryl Hanna is a professor of constitutional law at Vermont Law School. She’s done a lot of work on the pay equity issue, and she says the most important thing the public should hope to uncover is whether there’s a pattern of pay inequity in state government.
"Maybe not an intended pattern, maybe not a pattern that is motivated by people’s overt sexism but nevertheless a pattern that has developed based on historic discrimination against women that is still enduring," Hanna explains.
Since Congress passed the federal Equal Pay Act nearly 50 years ago, the gender-based wage gap has narrowed to 77 cents on the dollar. But Hanna says progress has stalled in recent years.
"These laws like the Vermont equal pay law are really designed to get at that problem by making sure when employers pay different rates to men and women for doing essentially the same work, that they have an extremely good business-related reason for doing so," Hanna says.
In Vermont, women earn about 84 cents for every dollar that men earn. So as part of the lawsuit, the Commission is seeking an independent audit of pay equity among state employees.