August 18 marked the 94th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. 51 years later, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution making August 26 Women’s Equality Day commemorating the occasion. On Monday, that celebration came with a note of caution. The Anchorage YWCA hosted an event — dubbed a “Rally for Equal Pay and a Fair Minimum Wage” — at their offices on Fifth Avenue in downtown Anchorage. Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) were the featured speakers.
Hilary Morgan, the executive director of the Alaska YWCA, told a crowd of around 50 people that much work in the realm of women’s rights is yet to be done. Women in Alaska make just 67 cents for every dollar made by a man for the same job, making Alaska 43rd in the nation for women’s pay (greater than the national average gap of 77 cents). On a current trajectory, women’s wages wouldn’t catch up to men’s until the year 2142.Crossroads GPS: “Equal” AK
The timing of the event — which rallied support for Begich, an end to gender-based pay discrimination, and the passage of Alaska’s Ballot Measure 3 to raise the state’s minimum wage — contrasted sharply with a recent attack against Begich launched by the Karl Rove backed Crossroads GPS. The ad, released last Thursday, directly accuses Alaska’s junior Senator, who is up for reelection this November, of being guilty of the same cause he was advocating: gender-based pay discrimination.
“Begich pays his female senate staff 71 cents for every dollar he pays men. On average, women working for Senator Begich make $23,000 less than men,” the voice says in the 30-second clip.
The last-August snowball has thus proceeded to clog Twitter feeds, Facebook comments threads, and conservative media outlets with reckless abandon.
It was a claim that CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Northwest, Christine Charbonneau, called “hooey.”
“I will tell you that Mark Begich knows about what those issues are and what he’s going to do to defend women long before we make a phone call asking him to do so,” Charbonneau told the Anchorage crowd. “He’s 100 percent with us with all of these things.”
Hooey is one way to describe it. KTVA’s Kate McPherson noted that a list of Begich staffers “shows no clear indication that women are paid more than men performing the same role.”
Much of the pay inequity among Begich staffers is based not on gender, but on job description. His chief of staff, as one might expect, makes considerably more than an office assistant. Legislative staffers range in job descriptions from the lowest paid, a two-week stint as an office assistant that translated to a $1,541 paycheck, to the highest: $76,468 to his Chief of Staff paid out between October of 2013 and March of this year.
“I’m proud to know that my work force — in both my campaign as well as my official office — I think we’re at 65 to 70 percent women,” Begich pushed back against the claim during his remarks on Monday. “That’s been the norm for all my life, and I think it’s great.”
Also included in the Crossroads GPS ad was a proposed piece of legislation. “Tell Senator Begich to end unequal pay for women. Pass [Senate Bill] 2172, End Pay Discrimination Through Information Act.”
The bill in question was authored by Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada) back in March and is aimed at amending the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to prohibit employers from retaliating against employees for complaints about gender-based pay inequity. The intimation that Begich is standing in the way of the measure is problematic on its face. The bill was introduced and then promptly assigned to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions. It’s still sitting there.
Begich does not serve on the committee, making his support or opposition a moot point. Alaska’s other Senator, Lisa Murkowski, does. So, if one felt particularly strongly about the measure, it might be more advisable to give her office a ring.
Begich prefers S.84, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which also seeks to revise the Fair Labor Standards Act (including employer retaliation for complaints), but takes a more comprehensive approach. S.84 would stipulate that wage differentials are limited to “bona fide factors, such as education, training, or experience,” makes employers liable for civil action if found in violation of sex discrimination prohibitions, and gives employees additional power to challenge a wrongful termination based on gender.
The Paycheck Fairness Act found its way to the Senate floor for a vote in 2012, but came up six votes shy of the 60 vote margin needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. Begich voted in support of the bill; Murkowski did not vote.
“You know, you think about it, out of a hundred people we need 60,” Begich told Monday’s crowd, shaking his head. “There should be 60 people who see a problem with our pay system in this country and should be stepping up to the plate.”
Begich’s Republican challenger, Dan Sullivan, has not indicated whether or not he would support either measure. The Paycheck Fairness Act was reintroduced in January of 2013 by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) and awaits what kind of Senate majority November brings.
The overarching theme of the event was a call to support Begich in the midterm elections. The Republican primary, which featured Joe Miller, Mead Treadwell, and Dan Sullivan, often drifted far to the right of the electorate when it came to women’s issues, such as support for the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, abortion rights, and access to contraception.
Democrats see these stark contrasts as the strongest case to help turn out the vote and secure reelection. Whether that pans out is hard to say, as much fewer women vote in midterm elections. Begich projected a possible 15 to 20 percent drop in women voters, between this year’s midterm and the 2012 general election. Expect his voice to grow louder on the topic, as he hopes to buck that trend come November.