Some employees wrongly assume that discrimination must be to blame if someone doing the same work earns more than they do. But even under the Equal Pay Act (EPA), employers are allowed to value employees with more highly specific skills and experience.
Quite simply, some employees are more valuable than others because of what they bring to the job. Being minimally qualified can legally mean lower pay for the same job.
Recent case: Renee started her career at Haworth, an office furniture manufacturer, in a clerical position.
She had no manufacturing or supervisory experience. Over the years, she earned several promotions.
When her supervisor said she might increase her career prospects by getting a college degree, Renee started classes. To accommodate her college schedule and her desire to be at home more for her preschool children, the company also arranged a part-time schedule.
Renee earned her degree and returned to work full time. She was encouraged to shadow a supervisor who was going to retire soon. When he retired, Haworth posted the job. Renee applied and was promoted.
About 18 months later, Renee discovered that a male co-worker doing the same job earned about $10,000 more than she did. She complained and was told that he earned more because he came “from the outside.”
After getting into an argument with her boss about an unrelated matter, Renee stormed out and never returned. She did, however, file an EPA complaint alleging sex discrimination.
The company explained to the court that it set salaries within a range and gave extra consideration to experience both outside and within the company. The man whose salary Renee believed was evidence of sex discrimination had more than five years of supervisory and manufacturing experience both inside and outside the company, while Renee had none. Her prior positions had been largely clerical.
The court said the company’s explanation was valid. Experience can be a “factor other than sex” that justifies unequal pay for equal work. It doesn’t matter whether both employees meet the minimum requirements for the position. The employer is free to value intangibles and thus pay more. (Mallison v. Haworth, No. 11-1218, 6th Cir., 2012)
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