Women in Maryland earn less than men for the same work in every county but Prince George's, new data shows, yet the state fares better than most, according to another survey, with the second-smallest gender-based pay gap in the nation.
Overall, women in the state earn about 86 cents for every dollar earned by men, with median annual pay of $50,211 compared to $58,746 for men, according to data released last week by the National Women's Law Center. But the disparities vary, from about 10 cents lower than male counterparts in Charles County and Baltimore City to about 32 cents lower in St. Mary's County. And pay for African-American and Hispanic women lags even more.
The idea persists that "some women don't need to be paid as much as men, when the reality is we have more women breadwinners than ever before in the workforce," said Liz Watson, director of workplace justice for women at the Washington-based legal center. "In virtually every county, there is a significant wage gap. This is really taking money out of women's and families' pockets in Maryland. This has been a problem for a very long time, and we have made very little recent progress in terms of closing the gap."
The law center released the findings Tuesday to mark "Equal Pay Day," which symbolizes how far into the new year women must work nationwide to match what men earned the year before. The center is among the groups pushing for measures they say would strengthen Maryland's nearly 25-year-old Equal Pay Act.
That law, like the federal Equal Pay Act enacted nearly a half-century ago, does not go far enough to prevent gender-based pay discrimination, said advocates, who failed to win enough support in this year's General Assembly but already are preparing to try again next year.
Pay inequality is more likely to occur when workers are prohibited or discouraged from discussing wages, but existing laws fail to protect workers who talk about pay from retribution, advocates said. They're also calling for equal access to training that could lead to better pay, assignments and promotions.
"Where there's sunlight and transparency, there tends to be a much smaller wage gap," said Charly Carter, executive director of Maryland Working Families, which led the effort this year to pass new state laws.
According to Carter, 61 percent of workers across the country say they are prohibited or discouraged from discussing wages.
Still Maryland fares better than most states in gender-based pay parity. A study recently released by the Institute for Women's Policy Research shows women nationwide earn 78 cents on the dollar compared with men. But in Maryland, the study put the figure at just over 87 cents, a gender earnings ratio second only to New York's at nearly 88 cents on the dollar.
Maryland's pay gap may be narrower than elsewhere because of a large share of federal workers in jobs where salaries are public, Carter said. And it may explain the pay equity in Prince George's County.
But discrimination can exist in public as well as private workplaces, some say.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a class action lawsuit against the Maryland Insurance Administration, alleging wage inequities between male and female investigators and enforcement officers at the agency since 2009. The lawsuit claims the agency violated federal law by discriminating against three female employees and a class of workers by paying them "at rates less than the rates paid to male employees in the same establishment for substantially equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions."
The insurance administration "strongly disputes the allegations," and plans to "vigorously" defend the case, said spokesman Joseph A. Sviatko III on Friday.
Opponents of the Maryland bills, who say they support equal pay for equal work, fear employers would be unfairly targeted for discrimination if they are required to disclose salaries. As proposed, they say, the bills would lead to violations of privacy and to frivolous lawsuits, and would harm small businesses already struggling to attract and retain good workers.
The proposals "presume that employers are guilty, and puts the burden of proof on them to prove they are innocent," said Jessica Cooper, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. "It opens the door to serious concerns. … Maryland should be focusing on how to make it easier for employers to create jobs, not make it harder for them to provide jobs."
Cooper argues that statistics showing pay disparity may be flawed, failing to account for "life choices," such as women taking time off work, and that disparities often have to do with time worked in a position or with educational background.
Ensuring equal pay for equal work and protecting privacy of compensation are separate issues, said Patrick Donoho, president of the Maryland Retailers Association.
Requiring employers to disclose salaries "can become very divisive in the workplace," Donoho said. "The law is such today, if you feel you're not being compensated appropriately, you can file a complaint. This would insert a new standard in the workplace. It's inserting government into relationships in the workplace."
Carter said her group decided to spearhead the equal-pay legislation after working the past two years to raise the minimum wage in Maryland.
"Overwhelmingly, we heard primarily from women … about not just the minimum wage, but 'How do I compete with the men that I work with who I suspect are making more or who I know are making more?'" she said.
The gaps widen over the span of a career, starting after college and increasing until retirement, when women have fallen 37 percent behind their male counterparts, affecting Social Security and pension incomes, said Carter, citing a study by the American Association of University Women.
"It's a growing problem as people get older," she said.
It took AnnMarie Duchon, associate director of disability services offices at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, seven years to persuade her employer to pay her the same as a male co-worker doing the same job. From the time she was hired in 2004 on a team of consumer managers, she earned less than a male colleague who also had a master's degree in education and comparable professional experience. She asked to be paid more.
"It was a pretty quick no — with the justification that the other co-worker had taken a pay cut to accept the position," said Duchon, who appeared with Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulkski last week at an event calling for passage of the federal Paycheck Fairness Act. "It wasn't perceived that I had, although I had. It was hard to make sense of."
The gap increased after both she and the male worker were promoted to associate director jobs.
"You beat yourself up with the wondering: 'Did I do something wrong? Did I upset someone?' " said Duchon, 41, and a mother of a 5-year-old daughter, who decided to go public to show that disparity exists.
After presenting a chart showing the stark difference in pay, she persuaded her employer to raise her salary. It had taken seven years and cost her and her family $12,000 in lost wages, and, she noted, she had full access to salaries at a public institution.
"It's too bad that things have not changed since the first pay equity act bill passed in 1965," said state Sen. Susan Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat who introduced one bill in the General Assembly to update the current pay equity law and another to protect against retaliation for discussing salaries. "We can't wait for Congress to act. It's time to move forward on this."
Lee, who plans to reintroduce the bills next year, said the proposals would require pay differences to be based on job-related factors such as merit and ability, and would benefit employers, enabling them to create a more equitable work environment.
Before the next session, Lee said, she hopes to meet with advocacy and business groups "to talk about how we can move forward on this to promote fairness and hear their concerns.
"It's good that we're better than other states," she said, "but why should we have this gap at all? It's still not right and still not fair."