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Minn. Fines Districts Millions of Dollars Over Gender Pay Equity

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Two Minnesota school districts face millions of dollars in fines for failing to comply with the state's gender-pay-equity law. And about a dozen other school systems are receiving notices of penalties.

The Minneapolis schools have been fined $6.8 million, and the South Washington County district's fine recently was cut in half to $1.4 million after an appeal, state officials said last week.

South Washington County, a suburb of St. Paul, is still contesting the state's ruling. Minneapolis officials said they are asking the state to suspend their fine; they said they can demonstrate that they are bringing their pay schedules up to snuff.

The school systems are among some 50 cities, counties, and other public employers under penalty for not complying with the state's 1984 law.

"This is one of the most aggressive, hard-hitting pieces of legislation" in pay equity, Susan Bianchi-Sand, the executive director of the National Committee on Pay Equity, said last week.

Minnesota is one of a handful of states trying to close the wage gap for public workers in male- and female-dominated jobs. Iowa, New York State, Oregon, Washington State, and Wisconsin have similar laws, but dozens of other states have begun looking at the issue, Ms. Bianchi-Sand said.

In Minnesota, the state's 1982 findings on unequal pay among male and female state employees sparked interest in setting some standards, Faith Zwemke, the pay-equity coordinator for the state department of employee relations, said. Soon after, the movement trickled into local governments and schools.

Out in Front

Most state pay-equity laws were passed in the mid- to late 1980's, said Ms. Bianchi-Sand, whose 15-year-old coalition of civil-rights groups, women's organizations, and unions lobbies for fair wages.

At that time, large numbers of women were entering the workplace but were being paid about 59 cents for every dollar earned by their male colleagues, she said.

Some observers said there has been more sensitivity to fair pay and equal treatment in education--a field dominated by women.

"The teaching profession is further ahead on this because it has so many public-sector workers and because the unions have really made it an issue," Ms. Bianchi-Sand said.

Under the Minnesota law, the state analyzes the salaries of men and women in jobs of comparable value, figures the average time it takes men and women to reach maximum salaries, and looks at other factors such as longevity and performance pay, Ms. Zwemke said.

For example, the state could compare how districts pay custodial workers, usually men, and paraprofessionals, who typically are women.

Local governments were fined the greater of $100 a day or a 5 percent reduction in state aid for failing some of the state's tests, Ms. Zwemke added.

The school districts that had not complied with the law when they reported to the state in 1992 had a grace period to bring their systems into line. Those that failed to do so were fined.

Ninety-seven percent of the 1,600 public employers affected by the law escaped penalty, Ms. Zwemke said.

But 53 local governments and school districts were charged from $730 to $6.8 million--the Minneapolis district's fine.

'A Long Way'

South Washington County, a district of about 14,000 students, is appealing the state's decision but hopes to avoid court action, Perry Palin, the district's human-resources manager, said.

First, the district wants to try negotiating with the employee-relations department.

"What we're arguing about is a technical finding," Mr. Palin said. "During the grace period, we thought we came into compliance--and the state disagreed."

State officials found that the district failed to meet their standards for a period of a year and a half.

But Mr. Palin said the district was forced to report a mixture of current- and prior-year salaries because some local unions had not finished bargaining before the state's deadline.

"Our school district--along with a lot of others--has come a long way," he said. "We've spent over a third of a million dollars since '86 adding to base salaries."

The 44,000-student Minneapolis district is waiting for the state to respond to a request that the $6.8 million fine be thrown out. Katrina Reed, the director of labor relations for the schools, said she believes the district now only needs to spend about $250,000 to meet the state's guidelines.

Mr. Palin and other school officials, however, still praised the state for moving in the right direction.

"We're all in favor of the concept. We really want to see our female employees paid fairly," Mr. Palin said.

Ms. Bianchi-Sand predicted a second wave of action in the states where some groups are already lobbying for pay-equity laws.

"This is an issue that's on the minds of working women and people of color," she said. "The [wage] gap is still too big."

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