Closing gender pay gap in O.C. government

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

A state audit revealed last week that female employees with the county of Orange earn an average of 27 percent less than their male counterparts.

The audit, as reported by the Register, was conducted by the California State Auditor and looked at four large California county governments, finding the gender pay gap in Orange County ranked worst for average total compensation of female workers as a percentage of total compensation for male workers.

Confirming what longtime county workers have known, the report found top-paying positions were overwhelmingly held by men, while lower-level positions were more often filled by women. In addition, the report discovered men were paid slightly more for similar work here than women, also contributing to the gap.

These troubling results should not come as a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the evolution of political dialogue in Orange County over the past 10 years.

Decades ago, the public generally recognized the role of municipal workers in keeping our communities safe, healthy and functioning. So back then, if the county was having trouble recruiting and retaining social workers, who protect abused children, or public health nurses, who stop the spread of infectious disease, or sheriff’s dispatchers, who answer 911 calls and keep first responders updated as emergencies unfold, the county would have acted quickly to address the issues causing the trouble.

But for the past 10 years, political power brokers here and in ideologically driven pockets throughout our country have unleashed unrelenting attacks on the economic security of the municipal workforce. Nearly every political campaign during the past decade has included commitments from opportunistic extremists to shrink pay or reduce retirement security or health care for public workers.

In Orange County, the political pressure created a climate of fear and intimidation, where actively challenging discriminatory pay practices was discouraged. In some cases, attempting to focus attention on inadequate and unfair pay practices invited retaliation and negative political consequences for workers and others who tried.

So today we are left with the reality that many county jobs predominately performed by women pay much less than county jobs predominately performed by men.

“Achieving greater levels of pay equality depends not only on men and women earning equal amounts in the same classification; it also requires men and women to occupy equally both lower and more highly compensated positions,” the audit report states.

This is not because the jobs predominately staffed by men are any more difficult or more dangerous or require more education than the jobs women do. Try telling that to a psychologist who works with mentally ill and homeless veterans or a social worker who handles a caseload of teens who have been exposed to violence and drug use their entire lives.

A positive shift in the county culture is long overdue. This year, under new county leadership, that shift appears to be moving in the right direction. Now is the time to take meaningful action to make clear to social workers, nurses, dispatchers and others that the county government’s culture will continue to evolve by fulfilling the moral imperative to make equal pay and equal treatment the rule, rather than the exception.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: June 10, 2016