Labor law changes will address wage gap for women

Solid workers are good, but all-stars shine brighter

BRATTLEBORO — Many employers offer flexible work schedules and don't know it. That's according to Vermont Assistant Attorney General Julio A. Thompson, who said the challenge is to persuade employers to adopt a new mindset for all employees, not just a select few who are “their stars.”

Thompson, director of the AG's civil rights division, along with representatives from the the Vermont Commission on Women (VCW) and the U.S. Department of Labor, met Sept. 19 at Brooks Memorial Library to outline new Vermont labor laws, such as for flexible work schedules, and to take feedback on issues women face in the workplace.

Approximately 20 women attended and participated in the meeting.

The Vermont Legislature passed bill H.99 last year to expand the state's Equal Pay Act. To give employers time to adjust to provisions in the law, the state phased in the new rules.

With H.99 becoming law, a benefit was that employees were allowed to discuss flexible work schedules with their bosses.

H.99 also allows employees to disclose their wages and inquire about other wages at their workplace. The idea behind wage disclosure is to help close a gender-based wage gap.

According to a 2014 report from American Association of University Women citing U.S. Census data, women's median earnings in Vermont are $38,316 per year, 83 percent of the median earnings of men in the state ($46,175).

When employers in the state tell Thompson they can't give a pregnant worker time off or otherwise alter her schedule, Thompson counters, “Well, do you give time off for hunting?”

Or time off or reduced workloads for employees who bang up their knees skiing?

Often, the employer answers yes, said Thompson. And, he points out, these are examples of flexible work time and medical leave. If an employer offers some employees such flexibility, he or she can extend it to all employees.

While the AG's office can take employers to court for labor law violations, Thompson said it rarely comes to that.

“People usually react to my [telephone] calls like they do to the local IRS office,” he said.

Audience members' comments highlighted the multiple challenges workers - especially female workers - face. Women describe their lives as a fragile balance of family responsibilities and earning a livable wage - a construct that can topple with a car breakdown or the illness of a child.

A number of the women in the audience also spoke to the challenges of holding a job when few childcare programs match parents' work schedules.

Other audience members spoke to the frustration women feel in trying to get off of welfare programs when they continually fall into a gap between the benefits the programs provide and the wages the women can earn.

One audience member questioned how much society really supports women and mothers entering the workforce.

The flexible work law, H.99, is part of an expansion of the state's Equal Pay Act., and allows employees to disclose their wages to each other and inquire about other employees' wages.

VCW executive director Cary Brown said the Legislature rolled out the law in sections to help employers adjust to the changes.

Vermont is the only state that allows employees to negotiate flexible work schedules, said Brown. San Francisco passed a similar measure.

In a nutshell, the law allows employees to request intermediate or long-term shifts in their work schedule. Employers must respond to the request either in a conversation or in writing at least twice a year. Employers shall not penalize employees for making such a request.

An example of flexible schedules includes employees aligning their work hours to the school day or accommodating care for an elderly parent.

Some types of work are exempt from the flexible work time law, such as contracting work or projects where a company needs to hit fixed deadlines.

Brown and Thompson outlined other workplace laws aimed at protecting workers that the Legislature strengthened in 2013.

According to a VCW fact sheet, Vermont adopted an equal pay law in 2002. Under the Equal Pay Act, discrimination on the basis of gender is illegal.

“It is illegal to pay wages to employees of one sex at a rate less than the rate paid to employees of the other sex for equal work that requires equal, but not identical, skill, effort, and responsibility, and is performed under similar working conditions,” the VCW fact sheet reads.

Differences in wage levels can prevail if they stem from seniority or merit or are based on quantity or quality of production.

Vermont law also allows workers to discuss their wages and inquire about the wages of other workers.

The state passed a wage disclosure law in 2005 and amended it in 2013. Under this law, employers can't require wage non-disclosure agreements. Workers can disclose their wages and inquire about other workers' wages without fearing retaliation.

A variety of federal and state laws protect pregnant workers. Both state and federal laws prohibit employers from refusing to hire or deciding to fire a worker as a result of her being pregnant.

A pregnant worker also has the right to accommodations to her job duties such as light duty or alternative assignments during her pregnancy. State and federal laws also allow for 12 weeks of unpaid leave and job protection.

State and federal law also provides women the right to request time to express breast milk. Employers need to provide private, non-bathroom space for expressing. The VCW helped design and lobby for the Vermont law.

State and federal family leave acts entitle some Vermont workers to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to care for either a newborn or an ailing relative.

The state's Parental and Family Leave Act (PFLA) applies to employers with 10 or more employees who work an average of 30 hours a week. In the cases of family or medical leave, the act applies to employers with 15 or more employees, again working an average of 30 hours a week.

The federal family leave act applies to federal employees and businesses with 50 employees or more.

According to a fact sheet from the VCW, Vermont workers have protections against retaliation, discharge, or discipline from employers when the workers exercise the rights afforded under Vermont labor laws.

When discussing changes in the workplace, Thompson said the strongest approach is humanizing the situation for employers and employees.

According to Brown, Thompson, and audience members, employee benefits such as flexible work schedules usually foster employee loyalty and job satisfaction.

He said he often asks employers whether they want to do the minimum to meet labor laws or else create a workplace they're proud of.

Of an employer who balks at allowing flex time or family leave, “that's just a mindset,” Thompson said. “You can find a way. And you'd have more stars.”

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