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Erik Burgess, Published February 01 2014

Moorhead nearly fails state’s test on fair pay for women in city jobs

MOORHEAD – The city government here was close to failing a state-mandated test to ensure its female workers are fairly paid.

The pay equity study is administered every three years to make sure cities and counties pay women and men equally for jobs requiring comparable skill sets. Failure on any aspect of the report could result in a 5 percent cut to local government aid – which would amount to more than $350,000 in Moorhead.

If just one more type of city job held only by women was underpaid, Moorhead would have run afoul of a state law that could lead to financial penalties.

But state officials say that doesn’t mean Moorhead barely dodged a bullet.

The state doesn’t really enforce the penalties attached to its pay equity law, said Laura Kushner, human resources director for the League of Minnesota Cities.

“I don’t actually know of any cities where that’s actually happened,” said Kushner, who’s been with the league for 16 years and worked as a human resources director for three Minnesota cities before that. “As far as I know, (cities) usually can avoid the fines.”

Moorhead officials said they are satisfied with the latest report. City Manager Michael Redlinger said Moorhead hasn’t failed a report in his time with the city, or for at least 12 years. The city did perform much better in 2011 and 2008.

Report just a ‘snapshot’

The reports, which have been required since 1984, ranks every job position and assigns them points based on the level of skills and responsibilities required for each job. In Moorhead, seasonal park and forestry employees are at the low end of the totem pole. At the top of the list is city manager and community services manager.

The report then analyzes which of those jobs are held solely by men, called “male class” jobs, which are held solely by women, called “female class” jobs, and which are held by both, called “balanced class” jobs

Cities must analyze how they pay male classes versus female classes, based on a state-set “predicted pay” level for each job title. That is the portion of the report that Moorhead nearly failed this year.

In Moorhead, 54.6 percent of the female class jobs and 45.1 percent of the male class jobs are below predicted pay, which equals an 82.6 percent “underpayment ratio.” The state requires at least an 80 percent ratio.

There are 71 male class jobs in Moorhead – 39 at or above predicted pay and 32 below. There are 33 female class jobs – 15 at or above predicted pay and 18 below.

If one more female class would have been below predicted pay, Moorhead would have failed the test with a 78 percent ratio.

Moorhead scored much higher on this part of the report in previous years. In 2011, it had a 174.5 percent underpayment ratio, with only 20.7 percent of female class jobs considered unpaid versus 36.1 percent male class jobs. In 2008, the city had a ratio of 189.8 percent, with 12.9 percent female class jobs underpaid compared to 24.5 percent male class jobs.

The test is also required of counties, schools, soil and water conservation districts and townships.

Clay County has passed at least the last three pay equity compliance tests. In 2012, the county’s most recent report, 57 percent of its female class jobs were below predicted pay, compared to 51 percent of male classes. That’s an 89 percent underpayment ratio.

Clay County Administrator Brian Berg said he and the county’s human resources staff could not recall the county failing.

But, like Moorhead, the county had significantly better underpayment rations in previous reports. In 2009, the county had 29.3 percent female classes underpaid compared to 52.6 percent male classes, scoring a 179 percent underpayment ratio. In 2006, 38 percent of female classes were underpaid, compared to 60.6 percent of male classes, for an underpayment ratio of 159 percent.

Moorhead Human Resources Director Jill Wenger doesn’t know why this year’s ratio was so much lower than in previous reports.

“We called Minnesota Management and Budget and said ‘Is this a concern?’ And they indicated it is not,” Wenger said. “But I honestly do not know why that is happening.”

The report should only be considered a “snapshot in time,” Redlinger said.

“With a larger employer like we are – 250 employees – it’s not an unexpected result,” he said. “We’re comfortable with the result.”

Some female elected officials in Moorhead said they weren’t concerned by the city’s latest report, either.

Mayor Del Rae Williams, the first female mayor in Moorhead, which also has four women on its eight-member City Council, said the city has done a good job of moving women into leadership roles.

“I am a feminist. Pay equity is important to me. Women in leadership roles is important to me,” Williams said. “If I did feel like there was something amiss that we were doing, I would talk about it.”

The pay equity reports also analyze the number of years it takes for individuals to move through salary ranges in female class jobs compared to male classes. Moorhead scored a 92 percent on that part of the test this year, far above the required 80 percent. Clay County scored a 103 percent in 2012.

Dilworth also passed all three of its latest reports without any infractions. City Administrator Ken Parke said he cannot recall ever failing any portion of the reports.

Cities rarely fined

Wenger said Moorhead wouldn’t have immediately been slapped with a fine if it had failed the test this year.

There is a more-detailed test that would be administered to make sure an error didn’t occur in the initial report, and ultimately, cities are rarely fined.

Cyndee Gmach, the state’s pay equity coordinator, said about 25 to 35 percent of jurisdictions fail a portion of the report each year, adding that the state is “generally successful” in bringing them to compliance without levying fines.

About 1,500 local governments statewide submit reports on a three-year cycle, meaning the state’s pay equity office gets about 500 reports a year.

In the past 16 years, there have been 96 penalty cases resulting in $1.3 million in restitution paid to an estimated 1,300 employees, Gmach said. Only $210,233 in penalties have been collected in those 16 years. The penalties go to the state’s general fund.

For comparison, Moorhead is expected to receive about $7.1 million in local government aid for 2014. A possible 5 percent penalty of that is about $355,000.

Even though the state doesn’t often fine cities, Kushner said that doesn’t mean the law isn’t working. She argued that public-sector jobs in Minnesota are better at paying an equal wage than private-sector jobs.

Women in Minnesota made 80 cents to every dollar that a man made in 2012, according to a report from the University of Minnesota and the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota released Thursday.

Kushner said she thinks that number would be somewhere closer to 90 cents if you only consider public-sector jobs.

She said it would be ideal if the private sector was also subject to pay equity laws. Because of the law, cities may have to pay certain employees more than what a similar employee would get on the private market.

“Then our elected officials might look at that and say, ‘Why are you paying so high? Nobody in the private sector makes this much money,’ ” Kushner said.

But with the state and the nation battling over what the minimum wage should be, Kushner said it’s doubtful a private-sector pay equity law would fly.

“I think most of our cities believe in the value of pay equity, as do I,” she said. “But when it only applies to one sector, it does make it more challenging.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518