Anne Kass

The 2003 New Mexico Legislature created an Equal Pay Task Force and directed it to study the extent of wage disparities between men and women and between minorities and non-minorities; to study the causes of the disparities; to study the effects of the disparities on the State of New Mexico and on families; and to make recommendations likely to result in the elimination of the disparities and prevention of their recurrence.

The Task Force notes that numerous studies have been done during past decades, both within the State of New Mexico and nationally, which have clearly shown that women are paid less than men for the same or comparable work, that, generally, minorities are paid less than women, and that minority women are paid the least of all.   That these disparities exist was established years ago, but progress toward eliminating them, or even significantly narrowing the gaps, has been so slow as to be practically nonexistent.    Indeed, the small degree to which the wage gap between women and men has narrowed is attributable more to decreases in the wages of men than to increases in the wages of women.

The Task Force quickly recognized the existence of a fundamental companion issue to that of pay equity—pay adequacy.   This issue was highlighted recently by the publication of The Bare Bones Budget Report by New Mexico Voices for Children, a respected non-profit children’s advocacy group, published Spring 2003.  Task Force is of the view that without specifically focused attention, the pay equity issue would continue to exist even if the pay adequacy issue were resolved.   The recommendations, which follow, refer to both fair and adequate wages because the two are intertwined.

The value of work and respect for it are bedrock beliefs in America.    They are common themes in the language, literature, education, and political discourse of this nation.   But there is an historic separation and disconnect between what is said and what is done to demonstrate that respect for work is genuine and committed.

Huge private fortunes were amassed in the United States from the unpaid work of African slaves.   Huge private fortunes were also amassed in this country from the grossly underpaid work of Chinese laborers and others who built the cross-country railroads, and the equally underpaid work of wave after wave of immigrants. No one was exempt, including women and children, who worked under horrendous conditions for decades until sweatshops and child labor were finally made illegal, largely through the struggles of generations of working union members.

The failure to pay fair and adequate wages, in addition to causing hardship and suffering for those workers unfairly and inadequately paid, has necessitated the creation of public assistance programs for working families (for example, food stamps, public housing, Medicaid, childcare subsidies, and child support enforcement efforts).   The public assistance programs are paid for by citizen taxpayers who subsidize the working poor and ultimately end up subsidizing the employers that fail to pay fair and adequate wages.

The enormity and persistence of the twin problems of wage inequity and wage inadequacy are evident from the continued existence of sweatshops here in the United States and throughout the world, the large, and ever-increasing, number of Americans who live near or below the poverty level.  They are further evident from the Bare Bones Budget Report showing that the current national minimum wage ($5.15 hourly) is roughly one half to one third of what a living wage would be ($9 to $15 hourly, depending on where in New Mexico a family lives and the number of  household dependents).   Indeed, it could be said that minimum wage represents a legal standard connected to the rhetoric of respect for work, while living wage represents a moral standard, demonstrative of a genuine and committed respect for work.

This shameful national history of unpaid and underpaid work, particularly that of women, children and people of color, surely informs, and perhaps dictates, the current realities of both pay inequity and pay inadequacy.   This Task Force, therefore, along with the recommendations which follow, first and foremost recommends that the State of New Mexico officially:

Ø      acknowledge this tragic historical past,

Ø      recognize that this past continues to impact present reality in the forms of pay  inequity and pay inadequacy,

Ø      undertake to remedy both with legal and moral commitments to establish and maintain fair and adequate pay for all work done by New Mexican  men and women so that in the immediate future a true respect for work and the working person finally replaces the timeworn rhetoric of the past.

This Task Force also generally recommends that respect for work be encouraged primarily through models and mirrors, and secondarily through legislative directives and  sanctions.   The State itself should consciously model respect for work in its own employment policies and practices and lead by example.   The Task Force specifically recommends that private employers who model respect for work by paying fair and adequate wages and allowing flexible work schedules, etc., be publicly recognized and honored by establishing a Governor’s award process and ceremony.   Additionally, the Task Force recommends that employers be given clear standards of what respect for work looks like along with tools (mirrors) for self-evaluation to assist them to, first, engage in an honest introspective process and, secondly, to remedy shortcomings that may be discovered through that process.