Jobs Need to be ‘Substantially Equal,’ Not Identical, to Demand Same Pay

Some employers wrongly believe that they’re not vulnerable to a federal Equal Pay Act claim when the two jobs in question aren’t identical. But female employees don’t need to meet such a high standard to bring their equal-pay claim to court. The EEOC says females must prove only that they’re paid less than men who work in "substantially equal positions."

When deciding whether jobs are substantially equal, titles don’t matter. Duties and responsibilities do. If two positions are equal in all but name, pay attention to who holds those jobs. If members of one gender, color, religion or nationality hold most of the higher-paying positions, alarm bells should sound.

Recent case: Seventeen female nurse practitioners (NPs) at the Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center filed Equal Pay Act claims. Their beef: Physician assistants (who were predominantly male) were paid about $10,000 more for jobs that required similar tasks, skills, responsibilities and working conditions to the NP jobs.

The court looked at these stats: 95 percent of the NPs were female, while 85 percent of the physician assistants were male. Each profession had similar education, similar licensing requirements, and they worked side-by-side, often covering for each other.

The appeals court sent the case to trial because the medical center couldn’t come up with a logical business reason for the pay disparity. Saying that they’d always paid NPs less than physician assistants didn’t cut it. (Beck-Wilson v. Principi, No. 04-4010, 6th Cir., 2006)

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Online resource: To brush up on equal-pay law, read the EEOC guidance at