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In the wake of several recent equal pay settlements between female university professors and their employers, the newest litigation of this ilk has popped up in New Jersey. A lawsuit filed under the New Jersey Equal Pay law in state court last week by five women professors at Rutgers University alleges that they are paid significantly less than their male counterparts. Three of the five plaintiffs are world-renowned scholars in their fields, having published multiple books, hundreds of articles, given numerous presentations, and won several awards. In fact, two of the plaintiffs have achieved the most prestigious professional designation at Rutgers, and yet all five are still paid tens of thousands of dollars less than male professors with the same or less impressive credentials.

IMG_5357-300x169One of the plaintiffs, Professor Deepa Kumar, who teaches journalism and media studies and is one of the country’s leading experts on Islamaphobia, was hired in 2004 at a salary that was the same or higher than four white men and women who were hired contemporaneously. However, today, Professor Kumar makes approximately $25,000 less per year than other professors in her department despite multiple attempts to negotiate pay raises. Another plaintiff, Professor Judith Storch, a distinguished professor of nutritional sciences, recently learned that her salary was on average $46,000 lower than all other distinguished professors in biomedical science.

Remarkably, Rutgers already has in place a system of review by which professors may request wage increases in order to advance the goal of pay equity. The plaintiffs in the current lawsuit claim that system is not working. In 2018, the University’s faculty union commissioned a study that showed pay discrepancies between male and female faculty members. Overall, women faculty were paid 7% less than men. Over time, that gap can add up to a substantial amount of lost income. Professor Kumar estimates that she has lost over $300,000 since her employment with Rutgers began. Another litigant against Rutgers, Professor Nancy Wolff claims she lost $500,000. Putting that loss into terms of gender inequity, Professor Wolff pointed out that half million dollars that should have been paid to her was instead used by her employer to pay her white male counterparts at significantly higher rates than she was being paid.

The New Jersey Division of Civil Rights has published its guidelines concerning the administration of the New Jersey Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act.  The New Jersey Equal Pay Act, first enacted into law in 2018, makes it unlawful for employers to engage in discriminatory compensation practices and retaliate against employees for complaining about workplace wage related issues.  The guidelines issued by the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights will assist employers, employees, lawyers and judges on how to interpret the equal pay law in situations involving workplace wage discrimination and wage disparity.

IMG_3572-300x169The New Jersey Equal Pay Act prohibits employers from paying employees who are members of a protected class less than their counterparts who perform substantially similar work and are not in a protected class.  Unlike many other state equal pay laws, protected classes under the New Jersey equal pay statute are not limited to gender and instead include all other protected classes under the Law Against Discrimination such as age, sexual orientation, race, disability, national origin and others.

The New Jersey Equal Pay Act amended the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to provide for significant penalties to employers who violate the law.  In addition to an award of back pay for up to six (6) years from the date of the last unlawful pay occurrence, the law allows an employee to recover an additional amount equal to three (3) years of the awarded back pay monetary amount as treble damages.

Wage Gap in the Legal Field

The legal field is supposed to be predicated on justice, equality, and law abiding. While the legal industry should set the standard for respecting laws and providing fair treatment for employees and clients, this is not always the case.  Reports regarding cases in which law firms neglect to follow federal and state laws or allow discriminatory behavior to occur in the workplace tend to surprise many people. One area that law firms are particularly deficient in is that of pay equality. Studies as well as an abundance of recent court cases have shown that firms, particularly those in the BigLaw classification, consistently neglect to compensate their female employees equally in comparison to their male counterparts.

According to a survey conducted in 2016, male partners on average earned salaries that were 44% higher than those of female partners. The average salary of male partners in 2016 was $949,000, while females earned $656,000. Further, an article in the ABA journal states that women make up only 15% of the total amount of equity partners in law firms nationwide, meaning that 85% of these equity partners are men. This gap is typically not explainable by a difference in education or experience, and has also widened as the number of female equity partners has barely increased in recent years. A report produced by the American Bar Association contends that because compensation drives behavior, fair and equitable payment practices bear incredible importance to the success of a firm. An employee’s compensation influences their sense of self worth and how valuable they feel to their employer and therefore discriminatory pay practices are inherently damaging to both employees and their workplace. As part of an effort to increase transparency and lessen the gap in salaries, the United Kingdom has adopted a law that forces all employers with a certain amount of employees to publicly release the differences in pay between men and women. As many of the large law firms in the United Kingdom also have strong presences in the United States, the data that has been released can be used to infer the extent of these issues in our country as well. DLA Piper, for example, reported that men at the company earn 17.8% more than women on average. Norton Rose reported a similar percentage. Weil Gotshal & Manges, on the other hand, even when they removed those in secretarial roles, reported an average gender pay gap of 24.95%.

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