Wednesday, June 6, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Rep. Shelley Berkley made a rare trip across the Capitol on Tuesday to stand watch as Senate Democrats tried to pass equal pay legislation. The vote, which failed as expected, was designed to carry more weight on the campaign trail anyway.
The Paycheck Fairness bill — which would make it easier for workers to fight pay discrimination, seek redress and be protected from retaliation — has been kicking around Congress since the start of the Obama administration. Primary beneficiaries of the legislation would be women, especially minority women.
But it’s become a sore sticking point between the two parties, never garnering a single Republican Senate vote.
The fight, which erupts each election year, plays into Berkley’s campaign narrative against Sen Dean Heller, the Republican she is trying to unseat.
Berkley and other female Democrats from the House spent much of the day stumping for the Paycheck Fairness Act. As she watched from the back of the Senate chamber, Heller joined other Republicans in voting against the bill.
“There is no excuse for anybody voting against this,” she said. “This is more than a woman’s issue; this is a middle-income family issue. This is not the 1950s. We’re not talking about women who have a little job that at the end of the week they fill their cookie jar with extra money for the kids. These are the mainstay breadwinners. It’s their paycheck that is paying the rent, putting food on the table, putting clothes on their children’s backs and putting gas in the car.”
Berkley voted for the bill as a member of the House in 2009 — something she won’t get a chance to repeat this year, as the Republican-led House is unlikely to pick it up. Heller voted against it then as he did now.
“Unfortunately, the only winners under this legislation would be trial lawyers,” Heller said Tuesday morning, calling the Paycheck Fairness measure a vote “designed for press releases.”
“Legitimate cases that could be addressed under the current system would be lost in a flood of lawsuits,” he said. “These changes would mean much harder times ahead for Nevada’s unemployed and underemployed, so many of whom are women.”
Sen. Harry Reid actually praised Heller for his remarks afterwards — sort of.
“He is the only Republican ... who came to say a word about pay equity,” Reid said. “All due respect to my friend Dean Heller, he would have been better off if he had said nothing.”
As the gender equality issue works its way onto the campaign trail, Heller began pushing his own alternative to the Paycheck Fairness act — the End Pay Discrimination Through Information Act.
Heller’s bill also offers protections from retaliation for women who try to find out if they’re being paid unfairly. He said his bill would limit frivolous discrimination lawsuits, while Democrats argue it would hamper women from seeking redress through the courts. Heller’s bill would also prevent the government from collecting salary information and disbursing grants to help women better negotiate higher salaries.
Democrats attacked Heller’s bill with the same harshness he directed toward their legislation.
“A watered-down, hollow version of the Paycheck Fairness Act doesn’t cut it for the women in this country,” Berkley said. “You’re either for pay-equity or you’re not, and introducing election-year pieces of legislation that have no prayer of passing, just so you can stand behind them and use them when you’re running for office, doesn’t help the situation, and doesn’t repair the damage of pay discrimination.”
“I truly wish today’s discussion was about leveling the playing field ... but years-old legislation mired in politics won’t get us any closer to either ending gender discrimination in the workplace or ensuring that all women who want to, have a job,” Heller said. “This proposal couldn’t pass when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, yet here we are today voting on the same measure again and again, and those who are actually victims of workplace discrimination are only getting lip service from Washington.”
The debate is framed by statistics recycled in stump speeches dating back to 2008. The U.S. Census data from that year found women, on average, are paid 77 cents on the dollar earned by an average male.
The gap is even broader for minority women. Black women make 62 cents on the dollar, while Hispanic women make 51 cents.
In Nevada, the breakdown by sector is sometimes even more dramatic, according to statistics from the Joint Economic Committee.
While Nevada female health care practitioners, computer engineers, and finance sector types make about 75 cents on the dollar earned by men in those same sectors, women in the sales industries make 58 cents on the dollar. Women in legal professions make even less — 40 cents on the dollar.
The gender pay gap also appears to be reflected in Berkley’s and Heller’s offices. In the past six months, women in Berkley’s office made about 71 cents for every dollar a male employee made, while women in Heller’s office made about 74 cents for every dollar that a male employee made.
That doesn’t mean either Berkley or Heller would be subject to censure under the Paycheck Fairness Act if it passed.
The rule of paycheck fairness is equal pay for equal work. Berkley and Heller pay comparable salaries to their male and female staffers in similar positions. But in each office, there are more men at the top. Both employ more women on their congressional staff than they do men.