A Virginia Federal Court jury recently determined that Virginia Tech violated the Equal Pay Act, and awarded back pay to two women employees of its fundraising office. The Equal Pay Act is a federal law amending the Fair Labor Standards Act, which prohibits employers from paying unequal wages to women and men for doing the same or substantially similar work.
To establish a case under the Equal Pay Act, an employee must establish that:
- different wages are paid to employees of the opposite sex;
- the employees perform substantially equal work on jobs requiring equal skill, effort and responsibility; and
- the jobs are performed under similar working conditions.
However, an employee who proves all the above elements may still not prevail. A business may avoid liability if it establishes that such payment was made pursuant to a seniority system, a merit system, a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production, or a differential based on any other factor other than gender.
In the Virginia Tech cases, the two women claimed their starting salaries were lower than the men who did the same work. In its defense, Virginia Tech countered that the men had more experience when hired.
Both sides presented extensive statistical evidence. According to the plaintiff’s economist, men’s salaries involved with Virginia Tech’s fundraising were an average of 15% higher. Virginia Tech’s expert analyzed the experience and duties of the employees, and determined there was only an 8% difference. Tech's expert concluded that this difference could be linked to gender, but opined that there was a chance it occurred randomly since the disparity was not statistically significant.
Notably, one of the women testified that when she inquired about the pay differential between her and her male predecessor, the senior regional director of major gifts replied that her predecessor had a family to support. In addition, the Judge identified other statements that tend to show Virginia Tech's animus toward the women when he previously denied Virginia Tech's motion for summary judgment.
How does your company prevent potential liability under the Equal Pay Act? Businesses should evaluate its pay structure, including policies regarding seniority systems, merit systems and incentive systems in light of the prohibition of gender pay disparity. An effective way to prevent managers and supervisors from making compensation decisions based on a protected category under the discrimination laws is to establish and implement a comprehensive job evaluation system. As the lawyers for the women argued during the trial in this matter - if Virginia Tech "had good policies, we wouldn't be here."