In summary

California has the nation’s largest state worker gender pay gap, and Gov. Newsom has challenged state officials to do more to create an equitable workplace.

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By Kate Karpilow, Special to CalMatters

Kate Karpilow is a writer who previously directed the California Center for Research on Women and Families at the Public Health Institute,

Pay disparities are more than a numbers game.

Equitable wages help parents feed their children and pay the rent. Or, what a timely notion: build a reserve for emergencies.

That’s why – even in the midst of our all-consuming coronavirus crisis – alarm bells should ring about the main finding in a recent report on “women’s earnings” from the California Department of Human Resources.

In 2016, the median salary for women state workers was 80.5% of the median salary for men, a gender pay gap of 19.5% – significantly higher than the 12.3% gender pay gap in California’s overall workforce.

More alarm bells: The CalHR study also showed that black, Hispanic, Native American and Pacific Islander women had higher pay gaps than white and Asian women.

And according to a study reported in The Guardian, California has the largest-in-the-nation state worker gender pay gap.

What’s encouraging – in light of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s all-in focus on COVID-19 – is that he put machinery in place last year to take a serious look at pay equity.

At a September forum, he challenged top state officials to do more to create a diverse and equitable workplace. Proposals to reduce the state worker gender pay gap are expected at year’s end.

The governor’s next move should be to appoint a pay equity czar.

California needs a savvy political operator, reporting directly to Newsom, who can cut through red tape and push state departments, agencies and labor groups to take concrete steps to reduce compensation inequities among state workers, who number nearly a quarter million..

Two starting points? Ensure thorough research and modernize California’s antiquated bargaining process.

Comprehensive research

CalHR’s research spotlights critical pieces of the pay equity puzzle, but our decision-makers need a more complete picture.

As recommended by the National Women’s Law Center, we need data on compensation packages, not just salaries. Are there inequities when we factor in different rates and dates for retirement? Health benefits? Vacation time? Paid family leave?

California also needs to fulfill the promise of comparable worth legislation, passed in 1981, to determine the extent to which women’s work is under-valued and under-compensated.

Are differences, for example, in compensation between a California Highway Patrol cadet and a registered dietician due to a fair assessment of required skills, education and work activities? Or perhaps to the unequal power of their respective unions?

Developing a full picture of gender differences in compensation is a big job, which merits additional staff capacity. It’s time to consider a research home outside of CalHR, so they can focus on their lead role negotiating contracts with employee groups.

Go beyond ‘guild bargaining’

Anyone who tracks Sacramento politics knows that male-dominated public safety unions have what one labor leader called “oversized political power” – and that power has been used to benchmark salaries, boost compensation and gain favorable retirement benefits.

Call it “guild bargaining,” but not collective bargaining.

The result is an inconsistent set of metrics and methods that determine salaries and benefits for state workers in different bargaining units – which makes achieving gender pay equity a near impossibility.

State officials claim their ability to negotiate for pay equity is legally restricted to negotiations through the collective bargaining process, but there’s no reason that more political muscle – and a modernized approach – couldn’t be mustered to insist on gender pay equity for all state workers.

The state of Minnesota pioneered a process that did just that – more than 30 years ago – and California needs to play catch-up.

Fortunately, we have energetic, new leadership in California.

Newsom, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Chief of Staff Ann O’Leary each bring political know-how and deep commitment to equal pay for women.

And we’ve seen the governor and his team combat the COVID-19 crisis with relentless focus, creativity and a commitment to results.

That’s exactly what’s needed if we’re to fairly compensate the men and women who work for the state of California.


Kate Karpilow is a writer who previously directed the California Center for Research on Women and Families at the Public Health Institute,

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