A ruling by a federal judge Tuesday sends a clear message to Maine employers: You can’t pay your female employees less than their male counterparts.

There’s also another lesson, this one for regulators and lawmakers: Pay discrimination is likely a bigger problem than you think.

In the case decided this week, U.S. District Judge Lance Walker found that Northern Light Acadia Hospital violated the Maine Equal Pay Act when it paid a psychologist, Clare Mundell, nearly half of what it was paying male colleagues performing the same job.

The facts of the case were not in dispute. Through a conversation with a male colleague, Mundell found out that he was paid $90 an hour and another male on their team was earning $95 a hour, while Mundell was making only $50 an hour.

She tried to address the situation with administrators, who offered a slight pay increase plus a bonus to make up a portion of the lost wages. The hospital also planned to eventually cut back the pay of the male employees.

The hospital, however, never admitted that the pay discrepancy was based on gender, and that failure disappointed Mundell, who gave her two weeks’ notice. Despite glowing performance reviews, Mundell was fired three days after giving her notice.

Advertisement

As a result of the ruling, the hospital must pay Mundell triple damages for lost wages, more than $200,000.

If employers think they are saving money through unequal pay, their mind will change if they’re caught. Walker’s ruling is a reminder that they should not wait to be in Acadia’s shoes – businesses should review their payroll and make sure it follows the law. Walker even says the ruling might require it.

Acadia was caught because of what she called an “impromptu” discussion of pay rates with one of her male co-workers. That conversation was made possible by the Equal Pay Act, passed by the Legislature in 2019 and signed by Gov. Mills.

That law says that no employer may pay an employee “at a rate less than the rate at which the employer pays any employee of the opposite sex for comparable work on jobs that have comparable requirements relating to skill, effort and responsibility,” though it allows for pay differences based on seniority, merit and shift.

The law also allows employees to disclose their own and others’ pay in order to advance equitable pay, and to ask other employees about their pay, though nothing requires a person to divulge their pay rate.

“We all have the right to talk about what we are paid with our co-workers,” Mundell said in a statement after the verdict. “I encourage all workers to share this information freely with one another. In this context, knowledge truly is power.”

Advertisement

She’s right. But there will still be times when that knowledge is kept from workers, or when the employee affected does not have the same will or resources to fight as Mundell, who is also a member of the Bangor School Committee.

For that reason, regulators and lawmakers should make it clear that businesses that violate the Equal Pay Act will be caught, and that violations will not be tolerated.

Unequal pay has gone on for too long. In 2017, 25% of women in Pew Research Center survey said they earned less than someone doing the same job, as opposed to just 5% of men.

Judge Walker’s ruling shows Maine has the right tools to fight discrimination. It should not be afraid to use them.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.