By Hannah Brandt
On July 12, 2012, Aileen Rizo-Acosta was at a casual business meeting with several other colleagues from the Fresno County Office of Education’s math department. She works as a math consultant, coaching teachers, creating professional development and pedagogy in various contracts with schools throughout the county. She is now in her seventh year doing this work in Fresno County. On the date in question, she was in her fourth year.
As the conversation veered toward salaries, it came out that a new male hire had been placed on the pay scale nine steps above where Rizo-Acosta was when she was hired. This was true despite the fact that she had 13 years of teaching experience, whereas the man had only three or four. She also had a master’s degree and years of curriculum design expertise after working with publishers. He had no master’s degree. This policy has meant that she has made $20,000 less per year than her male counterpart, even though she has significantly more experience and education.
How could this have happened? The Fresno County Office of Education (FCOE) practices a salary policy whereby pay is determined solely based on a new employee’s previous pay. As Rizo-Acosta discussed salary with other men and women in her department, in the rest of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) departments and in the Language Arts department, she recognized that there was a pattern at the FCOE of hiring men several steps on the pay scale above the women, regardless of education or experience. Other males were placed on the seventh or eighth level, whereas all the women she talked to were placed at level one or two.
Once she realized that this was directly creating a huge wage gap at the organization, she went to Human Resources for an explanation. Human Resources tried to justify their reasoning by claiming that basing salaries entirely on prior pay is actually to promote fairness. When she asked if they were aware of the Equal Pay Act, they said they were. Human Resources said they would investigate the matter and follow up. Weeks passed, and they never did. Rizo-Acosta went to a higher supervisor who at first seemed like she would advocate for her. There is no union at the management level.
Rizo-Acosta even wrote to Jim Yovino when he became superintendent of schools. She never heard back from him. Dismayed, she had the revelation that she would have to take her case to an external body. It took six months to get the right to sue from the federal government because the Department of Justice has to accept it.
Depositions happened last in February 2014, and the judge’s motion took two weeks. The judge denied the FCOE’s attempt to drop the case. The motion said using prior pay is risky and wrong, and it is especially problematic to use it as the sole basis for pay rates. There was a similar case against Allstate using prior pay. The FCOE tried to use the positive outcome for Allstate in that case as justification for its policy. In that case, however, it was only used as one of several factors. The judge said that prior pay cannot be used as the sole factor particularly given the existing pay gap between men and women, as well as that between Whites and people of color.
Prior to working at the FCOE, Rizo-Acosta taught math full time at a middle school for seven years in Arizona. She had taught at various schools in that state for six years previous to that. She actually moved to Fresno seven years ago for this position. When Rizo-Acosta came on board, she had one master’s degree in education technology from Northern Arizona University. She now has a second master’s degree in mathematics from Fresno Pacific University.
She got her preliminary California credential within her first year at the FCOE and did her professional development to clear it because her Arizona credential alone was not sufficient in California. She did this before the professional development requirement was expanded to the two-year Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) induction program that teachers are forced to complete today.
Rizo-Acosta has advocated at the legislature for a change in the way the Equal Pay Act is enforced. She says, “Politicians say that we have protection under the law because of the Equal Pay Act, but employers do not act based on the intent of the law. Rather, they look for loopholes to get around it in order to make higher profits or cut costs. Women have to constantly be vigilant to keep them accountable.”
She says she has been devastated by it emotionally, knowing that she is bringing home less for her family. She wants the FCOE to change its policy to one that values education and experience with the proper compensation. This is needed to prevent discrimination against teachers in rural and urban lower-performing districts where pay rates are lower. If these teachers move to higher-performing districts that have this policy, they will be making less than their colleagues, regardless of training and expertise.
Rizo-Acosta is not fighting for her right to an equal wage only for herself. With two young daughters, she cannot help but think of them and her female students. If they were to consider becoming a mathematician or taking on some other career in the STEM fields, she does not want them to work so hard overcoming the obstacles of stereotypes and sexism to get their degrees and positions, only to be paid less for equal work once hired.
The FCOE has been using prior pay for 19 years. The FCOE insists that it is a good use of taxpayer dollars and that it attracts highly qualified candidates. Rizo-Acosta points out that it cannot possibly be a draw for candidates as it is not listed on any of the job descriptions. Although the pay scale is listed, how the pay rate is determined is not. In addition, if one works multiple jobs, the total salary combined is not taken into account. Only one of your part-time positions will be used to establish your salary. This discriminates against those working more than one job or those taking care of family at home and only able to work part-time outside the home.
Assembly Member Nora Campos (D–San Jose) proposed a bill in the legislature about not allowing previous salary to be used to determine salary. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it. Most women will not sue. Most will just get another job in frustration. Unbeknown to them, this perpetuates the problem because when you take your salary history with you, it does not help prevent the wage gap. Rizo-Acosta says employers should not be allowed to ask about a potential employee’s previous salary because this is a way to undercut people’s value.
Assembly Member Campos contacted Rizo-Acosta to say that she would try again next year to get Governor Brown to sign her bill prohibiting previous pay as a way to decide salaries. Rizo-Acosta’s trial date is set for Jan. 12. She does not believe her case will go to trial after the judge made such a strong statement in her favor. She is convinced the judge is making an example of her case in an effort to make a dent in the continued wage gap. Her supporters are similarly sure that there will be more cases like hers to chip away at this entrenched inequality.
Hannah Brandt is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact her at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @HannahBP2.