Bullock pushes equal pay for equal work initiative in Missoula

Sue Larew, vice president of First Interstate Bank, left, and Jen Euell, a member of the Equal Pay for Equal Work Task Force and director of the Women’s Foundation of Montana, right, join Gov. Steve Bullock in launching a series of initiatives aimed at closing the wage gap between men and women on Wednesday in Missoula. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

Saying the state must do more to close the gender wage gap, Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday continued pushing a new series of initiatives in Montana to provide equal pay for equal work.

Bullock, who’s running for a second term as governor, stopped in Missoula to address a crowd comprised largely of women gathered at First Interstate Bank – one of the first businesses in the state to sign a new pledge to help close the wage gap between men and women.

“Paycheck fairness is really an issue that should matter to all of us,” Bullock said. “It matters to working people, especially parents, girls and children. It matters to working families. We know that when working women are succeeding, families are succeeding.”

Earlier in the week, Bullock signed an executive order incentivizing best practices in equal pay for businesses that contract with the state. Businesses that sign the pledge, or do business with the state, agree not to retaliated against employees who ask for wage information.

When advertising a position, businesses are also asked to post the salary range, and they agree not to ask a potential employee about their wage history. Bullock said more than 60 Montana businesses have already signed the pledge.

“If businesses want to contract with the state of Montana, we ask them to do those three simple things,” Bullock said. “These are simple things that can make a difference as we work to narrow that gap.”

The initiative also includes a new Equal Pay Hotline, along with a statewide campaign aimed at raising awareness around gender wage disparities. Legislation alone can’t fix the problem, Bullock said. Rather, the state must achieve a cultural change, and private businesses must lead the way.

“We passed the equal pay act over 50 years ago,” Bullock said. “While strides have been made, we certainly have much more to do. What we have even today is an unacceptable wage gap.”

According to the governor’s office and the state’s Equal Pay for Equal Work Task Force, women receive 19 cents less on average than men for every dollar earned. Narrowing that gap in Montana would provide women and their families nearly $440,000 more over the course of a 40-year career.

“In 1919, Montana was the first state in the Union to pass an equal pay for equal work bill,” said Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula. “It’s been on the books a long time. Just saying that’s the law, or passing the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963, doesn’t make equal pay happen. You still have to do something about it.”

To help address the disparity, Bullock made equal pay for equal work one of his first priorities upon taking office in 2012. By 2013, he had appointed the Equal Pay for Equal Work Task Force, a committee that’s chaired by Labor Commissioner Pam Bucy and Department of Administration Director Sheila Hogan.

The task force includes 10 members representing business, labor, tribal and education. The group proposed three bills for the 2015 Legislature, though two failed to pass, including an effort to provide wage transparency through a Paycheck Fairness Act designed for Montana.

The group will make additional policy recommendations to Bullock heading into the 2017 Legislature. Bullock is facing Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte in his bid for reelection.

Jen Euell, a task force member and director of the Women’s Foundation of Montana, said the efforts in Montana are setting a new national precedent.

“For me, this work is all about ensuring that when (my daughter) enters the workforce eight years from now, that she can walk through those doors knowing she’s valued for her intelligence and her skills, and that gender has nothing to do with the wage that she gets,” said Euell.

The equal pay hotline is 1-844-550-FAIR.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com