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Alabama women suing for equal pay lack state protection

March 31, 2018

In this Sunday, March 18, 2018, Amy Heatherly poses for a portrait at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Heatherly, who is the only female director of human resources at the Tuscaloosa campus, sued the university over unequal pay in comparison to her male colleagues with fewer years of experience on the same management level in 2016. The lawsuit is ongoing. (AP Photo/Mallory Moench)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Amy Heatherly believes she would have been paid at least $50,000 more to do her job over the past five years if she had been a man.

As the only female human resources director overseeing compensation at the University of Alabama’s main campus, Heatherly said she knew for years she was getting paid less than three men on a similar management level with fewer years of experience.

She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2014, after receiving a raise that was half of her male colleagues’. In 2016, she sued the university.

“It did not have as much to do with the money but me feeling like I’m paid my worth, or at least paid equitably, like you’re being respected and recognized for what you do,” said Heatherly, 52, who has worked at the university for 19 years.

The university argues differences in pay are justified because her position is not comparable to her male colleagues. Heatherly says that she is a victim of gender discrimination because she’s not receiving equal pay for equal work.

White women in Alabama make 72 cents to a white man’s dollar. Black women make 57 and Latinas 47, the National Women’s Law Center calculated.

Federal law prohibits wage discrimination on the basis of sex for equal work, except where there is a difference in experience or productivity. Alabama and Mississippi are the only two states that don’t have equal pay laws.

Rep. Adline Clarke, a Democrat from Mobile, unsuccessfully pushed lawmakers to approve equal pay legislation. Clarke’s bill, which failed this legislative session, mirrored federal law but tasked the Alabama Department of Labor with enforcement. She said that would hold employers more accountable.

Lilly Ledbetter, the Alabama woman who lost a lawsuit over being paid less than her male counterparts, is the namesake of the law signed by former President Barack Obama to make it easier for women to sue over wage discrimination. She said people wrongly think that pay discrimination does not exist.

“It seems like they all have blinders on,” Ledbetter told the Associated Press. “The corporate world in some regards feels that equal pay for equal work is a myth. They think we have it.”

The university said in court filings that it explained Heatherly’s low raise was because of how she handled an employee complaint and software problems. Heatherly said they never talked with her about disciplinary problems at the time and gave her no performance evaluation.

Heatherly’s complaint said that when she sued, she and her three male colleagues all had the title of director, each with unique responsibilities.

“She’s the only person in the job, so then can she never be a victim of sex discrimination because there’s no comparator?” said Heatherly’s attorney Charles Guerrier, who worked for the EEOC for three decades. “If you segregate the jobs and underpay the women, you can’t violate law because there are no men doing the same jobs.”

The university counters in court filings that Heatherly’s role was not comparable because it wasn’t systemwide and had different responsibilities.

The university uses a pay grade system that tallies salaries based on the differentials. A statistical analysis by Heatherly’s economic expert reported she was paid less than 19 out of 20 men in her pay grade. The expert calculated the university paid female administrators between 5 to 14 percent less.

The university’s expert responded that the analysis was “flawed” because jobs can’t be compared within the same pay grade. The university said doing so is “ignoring legitimate factors that drive compensation,” like type of work and job performance.

Monica Watts, the university’s associate vice president for communications, said the university could not answer questions or comment on the ongoing case. In response to an open records request for documentation of equal pay complaints, lawsuits and settlements, the university said they have “no responsive public documents that compile the information.”

Federal court records show two University of Alabama at Birmingham professors sued over unequal pay in 2006. One settled and one left the university, according to their attorney.

Heatherly said the lawsuit has dashed her dreams of a promotion. She is her family’s breadwinner, currently earning more than her husband at $131,000 a year.

“There are days when I wonder, why do I keep helping a place that’s done this to me?” she said, wiping at tears. “If I can help to make it better for other females, and I know I can’t change the world, but if I do that I’ll feel like I’ve had an impact.”

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