Laurie Howard was promoted from secretary to HR coordinator for a United Technologies Automotive plant with 53 employees, all on salary. The head of the plant recommended she be promoted further to HR manager, but the company brass decided to continue to have the male manager at a larger plant nearby oversee both HR operations.
Although she lacked the title of HR manager, Howard said she was doing all of the same work. So she sued under the Equal Pay Act (EPA). A federal appeals court threw out her claim.
Why? The court said that although Howard performed the same "common core of tasks" as HR managers in other plants, her male counterparts were responsible for additional duties requiring greater skill and effort. They handled at least three times the number of employees and dealt with union work forces and hourly employees. As a result, the court said, the jobs were substantially different. (Howard v. Lear Corp., No. 00-2044, 7th Cir., 2000)
Advice: Employers of all sizes, but especially companies with more than one facility, must keep an eye out for potential violations of the EPA. To compare pay rates, look at the actual work being performed, regardless of job titles. If Howard had established that she performed the same work as male HR managers, she would have won.
How to defend equal-pay claims
You can successfully fend off an Equal Pay Act lawsuit by proving that pay disparity is justified by one of four factors:
- A merit system
- A seniority system
- A system that bases earnings on quantity or quality of production
- A differential based on any factor other than sex, such as experience or education
If you can't justify a pay disparity, correct it as soon as possible to minimize your liability.