By Marisa Lagos
San Francisco Chronicle
Therapist Laura Mui had the same educational background as her male colleague at a nonprofit mental health provider, more experience and a job with more responsibilities — yet she was paid about $5,000 a year less.
How did she know? That colleague was her husband.
The nation’s persistent wage gap — women take home about 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man, according to the White House — has garnered a lot of attention recently, but finding fixes is not easy, in large part because it’s hard for employees to find out how much their colleagues are being paid.
On Monday, San Francisco Supervisor David Campos will wade into the issue with legislation that seeks to better track whether city contractors are part of the problem.
The proposed law, which Campos will officially introduce Tuesday, would require city contractors with at least 20 employees to report annually — and confidentially — their employees’ pay to the city’s Human Rights Commission.
The reports would include information about workers’ sex and race, and if they raise concerns about wage discrimination, the Human Rights Commission could investigate.
The legislation would also require annual reports to the Board of Supervisors.
The proposal goes further than similar efforts elsewhere — including those by the federal government, which is in the midst of rolling out regulations requiring contractors to report aggregate compensation data.
The state of New Mexico and city of Albuquerque also collect pay data. But Campos says his proposal will be the first to compile individualized data and truly allow the city to identify specific cases of wage discrimination.
“I have been talking for more than a year about the inequity in San Francisco and the affordability crisis, and I think if you are going to address it, … you have to make sure this kind of pay disparity is addressed,” Campos said. “It’s not just hurting women — it’s hurting entire families, and, in that sense, it’s affecting the whole city.”
Mui, who didn’t want to name her former employer, said she repeatedly tried to raise the issue with her superiors but was rebuffed or given vague answers.
The emotional component of her job — she and her husband were working as school therapists — and the fact that it occurred during a recession made her feel trapped, she said.
“After meeting the kids and teachers you build relationships,” she said. “I wasn’t going to up and leave.”
Unfortunately, she said, the situation wasn’t surprising to her.
“My husband was shocked — he thought hands down I would be making more, for so many reasons,” she said, but added, “I have a thousand of these stories, but this is the only one I can prove without a doubt.”
That lack of information is a huge part of the problem, said Patty Bellasalma, president of California NOW, the state chapter of the National Organization for Women.
The organization, which is supporting the legislation, will also announce it is endorsing Campos in his run for state Assembly on Monday, she said.
Wage discrimination, Bellasalma said, has so many layers, including the subconscious biases both men and women don’t even realize they have, and the fact that professions dominated by women, like nursing, tend to pay less than those populated by men, such as computer programming.
The issue also disproportionately impacts women of color, who on average earn even less than their white counterparts.
Bellasalma said she hopes that simply compiling the data will prompt some businesses to make changes.
“We need the data. … That’s why we are excited about this legislation — it doesn’t aggregate things, it gives us information that the city and county need, as well as academics, to start and drill down and figure out how we create a compensation system that’s fair,” she said.
Under Campos’ proposal, some of the reporting details will be hashed out at a working group that will include appointees by the mayor, the Board of Supervisors and the Commission on the Status of Women.
The group will look at what kind of data collection system can best identify wage discrimination but also be least burdensome for businesses.
Once the data is collected, the Human Rights Commission will be charged with investigating potential cases of discrimination; if it determines that an employer has broken equal-pay laws, the commission can recommend financial penalties or the termination of the contract with the city.
Campos noted that it’s difficult for women to even know if they are being discriminated against because pay data is kept secret.
He said his proposal appears to be the first to attach government consequences to violations of equal-pay laws.
While the proposed law will only apply to private businesses that contract with San Francisco, Campos said he would like city agencies to voluntarily begin these assessments as well.
“This is a long process,” he said. “To get to where we need to get, this is an important first step, but it’s just that.”
Mui, who now works for herself, said the impacts of wage discrimination extend beyond what’s fair.
“For me, this is not just about equal pay — I am a therapist and I see how much injustice does to impact the self-esteem of women,” she said. “It takes toll on people’s emotional and physical well-being.”