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Bridging the Gap

Proposed state equal pay legislation engenders debate.



Talk about a war of the sexes.

A recent proposal to protect women's rights to equal pay in Tennessee has divided legislators between those protecting the interests of women and those protecting the interests of business. And so far, outspoken combatants on both sides have been female.

"I was in the government operations committee the other day, and one of the young Republican women just picked the bill to pieces," says Representative Beverly Marrero from Memphis. "She seemed to be more concerned with how it might affect business and whether they were going to be happy with it. I guess that's why I'm a Democrat and she's a Republican."

The bill was introduced by state senator Kim McMillan and is opposed by the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, headed by President Deb Wooley. Both women acknowledge the existence of a wage gap -- women earn about 75 cents on the dollar in the same job as men -- but are split over the effects of the new bill.

The law currently protects against wage differences based on factors other than education, training, and experience. A 2004 law dictates that employers found to have knowingly violated equal pay statutes must make up the difference to their employee. The second time, employers must pay double; the third time, triple. But the proposed legislation would allow women to sue for punitive damages beyond the wage difference.

"The current legislation, in my opinion, doesn't have this kind of teeth in it," McMillan says. "I think this bill will encourage individuals who feel they have been the victims of wage discrimination to seek redress."

For Tennessee chamber president Wooley, the bill's punitive damages are part of the problem.

"This bill creates a new cause for class-action lawsuits," says Wooley. "At the same time, we're really trying to get court reform under control because we recognize that it is not good for the economy. While it sounds good in an election year to talk about doing something for gender equality, it's a disguise for what this bill will really do. What it will end up doing is being counterproductive."

McMillan argues that the bill does more than increase the punishment for wage discrimination. "The bill deals with the issue of retaliation," she says. "You want people to be able to find out if they are being discriminated against without worrying that they might be fired."

She says the bill also discourages litigation by creating an amnesty program for companies.

"We have a part of the bill which gives companies the chance to step up voluntarily and say audit my business and make sure I'm not doing anything wrong, intentionally or otherwise. If they do that, they cannot be held liable, so long as they volunteer for the audit and make the requisite changes."

But Wooley contends that the current legislation, if employed forcefully, is enough. "I think the bill would dramatically expand and alter the government's power in terms of defining the market. I don't want to sound like I'm ignoring it [the wage gap], but it takes time," says Wooley.

Marrero sees things differently.

"This is kind of the carrot and the stick approach." And as for waiting for the wage gap to close naturally, she says, "It's 2006. I'm 67 years old. And I've been waiting my whole lifetime to get fair and equal treatment. I just hope it happens before I die."

The bill still has to go through several legislative committees. The final vote is expected within four or five weeks.

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