Mayor Tim Keller announced last month he was tightening down a program giving vendors competing for city contracts a preference if the disparity between salaries of their male and female employees did not exceed 7%.
The original incentive program to combat pay inequity was designed by activist Martha Burk and sponsored by City Councilor Diane Gibson in 2015. Under the new rule, a vendor must now have zero disparity to get the 5% preference.
“The playing field won’t be level until women, and especially women of color, earn fair wages compared to their counterparts,” Keller said in a statement announcing the change. “Part of that means rewarding companies that walk the walk.”
Fair enough. In addition, the new rule mirrors rules adopted by Bernalillo County and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, providing consistency among partnering entities. On the surface, the city’s change appears a good move.
But there are two problems here.
First, both Burk and Gibson fear going to zero will essentially render the incentive program meaningless. “It will be too hard to do; I think you have to incentivize people gradually to get them from point A to point B, and this to me seems like too big a step,” said Burk, who also helped design the state’s gender pay policies.
A 7% disparity might sound like a lot — it is. But not in comparison to the average pay gap in New Mexico of 21%. (New Mexico as a state ranks 15th nationally.) Data collected through the city procurement process found gender pay gaps up to 40%. About 80 companies have received the city’s certification since 2015.
“I think it (the change) effectively just kills the whole program that we worked so very hard on,” Gibson said.
And as for “walking the walk,” civil rights attorney Alexandra Freedman Smith is representing about 600 women who have joined a handful of individual plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the city of Albuquerque alleging significant and systemic gender pay inequity.
The lawsuit filed in 2018 and amended in 2019 claims that depending on how jobs are classified, women are paid $3 an hour to $6 an hour less than male counterparts who perform the same functions, and in many cases the women have been in the jobs longer.
The base pay also impacts overtime and pensions, and in some cases plaintiffs allege as much as a $7-an-hour difference. Freedman Smith says some of her clients are owed as much as $100,000 because of the pay differential.
The state’s Fair Pay for Women Act adopted in 2013 makes it unlawful to pay women less than men for equal work that requires equal skill, effort and responsibility and that is performed under similar conditions. There are exceptions, including seniority and merit.
The lawsuit was certified as a class action in July by state District Judge Clay Campbell — a decision the city is fighting in court. The city won’t comment on litigation, but says the current administration “has been at the forefront of the pay equity fight for years.”
Freedman Smith, who served as staff attorney for the state commission that proposed a new state Civil Rights Act, sees it differently.
“It’s particularly egregious (Mayor Tim Keller’s Office) came out with something saying we want to have pay equity for women by giving preference to contractors who pay men and women equally,” she told New Mexico Political Report. “Mayor Keller needs to lead by example instead of fighting the women who work for him and steadfastly refusing them what they should be paid under the law.”
These are serious allegations with potentially taxpayer dollars attached, and the new policy brings the issue back into focus. Keller told the Journal “we are working hard on legacy pay inequities. … We’re working on that in our own house, and with contractors bidding for taxpayer dollars.”
That is good to hear. In addition, the public, the women who work for the city and the City Council all need and deserve an honest accounting. And if inequities are found, a plan to fix them and compensate the victims. That would be “walking the walk.”