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Accusations Of Pay Discrimination In State Agencies Heats Up Texas Governor's Race

Texas Tribune

Democrats in the Texas Senate are asking the lieutenant governor to investigate pay discrimination for women in state agencies, including the attorney general’s office.

It’s the latest salvo being fired by supporters of Democrat Wendy Davis, who has made equal pay a key issue in her race for governor against Republican Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general.


The history behind the issue and the Texas battle being fought today date back to 1963.

That’s when President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act aimed at eliminating pay discrimination between men and women doing the same work.

Credit Kennedy Library
President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963.

A year later, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, told women he was strengthening enforcement of the law by making gender discrimination a violation of the Civil Rights Act.

“I am, and I believe you are, too, opposed to both stag government and ‘men only’ opportunity,” Johnson told a group of women.

“This law is not a pay raise law. But it does say that wherever men and women do the same work, whether at the workbench or the office desk, they shall be paid equal wages for equal work,” he said.

In the 50 years since, Congress has grappled with loopholes in the law.

Initially, equal pay protection did not apply to executives and administrators.  Now it does.

Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

Then, in 1998, a Goodyear Tire employee named Lilly Ledbetter learned she was being paid less than men at the same management level. The U.S. Supreme Court denied her claim, saying it should have been filed within 180 days of when the discrimination began, something Ledbetter called impossible because she was unaware of the discrimination that early.

But Congress was paying attention. And 11 years later, in June of 2009, Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, giving employees more time to file a complaint.

“I want every child growing up to know every woman’s work is valued just as much as every man’s,” Obama said.

Which brings us to the simmering battle in Texas. 

Equal Pay Challenge In Texas

It began when Prairie View A&M Professor DiljitChatha was promoted in 2004 but not given a pay raise.

“She was the lowest paid professor university-wide,” Houston attorney Ellen Sprovach said, noting Chatha had years of dedicated service at the university and had earned numerous awards and recognition.

Sprovach says she filed Chatha’s pay discrimination case in Texas’ state courts instead of federal court because the process is less expensive and gives a plaintiff a greater chance to be heard.

“The same case I might take to trial and win in state court might not see the light of day in federal court," she said. "Judges seem quicker to dismiss those cases by way of summary judgment. We don’t get the opportunity to argue it in front of a federal judge."

Sprovach says Texas courts usually look to federal law for guidance in employment discrimination cases.  But this time Texas Supreme Court justices didn’t. They disregarded the Lilly Ledbetter measure and rejected Chatha’s claim because she filed it more than 180 days after the pay discrimination began.

“It’s a pro-business decision by the Texas Supreme Court, quite frankly,” Sprovach said.

Texas Lilly Ledbetter Legislation

Enter State Sen. Wendy Davis. She and other elected officials sponsored a state law to match the federal time window for filing claims. The legislation passed last year, but Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it.

Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond says his group urged the veto because the Texas Lilly Ledbetter Act would have allowed claims for violations that occurred years ago.

“It’s our belief that it’s completely unfair to have an employer liable for some action that took place 15, 20 or more years ago by some employee who’s no longer there or the records are missing,” Hammond said.

Sprovach and Hammond, like Davis and Abbott, disagree on whether current employment laws are strong enough to protect Texas workers. 

Report Questions Salaries In Abbott's Attorney General Office

Davis is now highlighting a San Antonio-Express News report that found the average yearly salary for male assistant attorneys general under Abbott is almost $6,000 higher than for female assistants.

An agency spokesperson says most of the pay discrepancies are because the men have been at the agency longer or have more years of legal experience.

But the newspaper found numerous examples of more experienced female lawyers who were also paid less.

Abbott hasn’t responded to the news report but has said adequate legal avenues to pursue wage discrimination already exist.

His campaign said that’s why he, like Gov. Perry, would have vetoed the Texas Lilly Ledbetter law.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.