Law cuts into salary discrimination


National Report - A new federal law will make it easier for workers to file wage-discrimination lawsuits. Lawyers are cautioning veterinary experts.

National Report — Women earn less than men in many professions, but for veterinarians that disparity is growing, not shrinking.

Now practice owners face a new federal law, the first bill signed by President Barack Obama, that will make it easier for workers to file wage-discrimination lawsuits by reversing a 2007 Supreme Court decision that said employees had to file complaints within 180 days of the initial act of discrimination.

Now, the timetable is reset each time a paycheck is issued with a discriminatory wage. Workers can fight for pay going back two years under the law.

"Practices would be well-advised to look at their decisions when it comes to setting salaries and look at whether they're using valid reasons," says Shaun Graham, an Indiana attorney specializing in veterinary law and a member of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association.

The veterinary profession may be especially at risk, considering the results of a recent AVMA salary survey showing a large gap between starting salaries for men and women. That trend seems to be increasing despite the fact that, since the early 1980s, women veterinary students outnumber men.

The difference between their average starting salaries in 2006 was almost $3,000 per year, with men earning an average of $47,780 compared to women's $44,831.

By 2008, the difference widened to almost $4,000 per year, with men starting at an average of $51,321 compared to women's $47,330.

The worst offender in 2006 was food-animal-exclusive practices, which showed an $8,518 difference between male and female starting pay. In 2008, the trend shifted to equine specialists, with men earning $7,026 more than women.

The most balanced area of practice both in 2006 and 2008 was mixed-animal medicine, with men making just $1,166 more than women in 2006 and $1,467 per year more in 2008.

The only area of the profession to report women's earnings higher than men's was in advanced study, where women earned about $40 more per year than men in 2006 and $70 more in 2008.

The Veterinary Hospital Managers Association (VHMA) hasn't taken a position on the new law, according to VHMA Executive Director Christine Shupe, and the Association for Women Veterinarians was unaware of it.

Attorneys with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) point out that only businesses with 15 or more employees will be affected by the new law, which is only a revision to Title VII of the long-standing Civil Rights Act. But even smaller businesses are subject to the Equal Pay Act, which has no minimum business size requirement and has always had its complaint-filing deadline reset with each discriminatory pay period.

The two methods of discrimination relief are similar and sometimes can be used in combination against an employer, but each has a different type of compensation, says Diana Johnston, assistant legal counsel for the EEOC.

In addition to sex discrimination, the EEOC says the above laws also apply to ethnic, racial, religious and disability-related discrimination.

Wage discrimination is one of the issues Obama campaigned on, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed into law Jan. 29, was proposed before but failed to become law during President George W. Bush's administration because the White House and the Senate blocked the bill in spite of Congress' approval. The new law is effective immediately.

But no matter which law would apply to a practice, Graham says owners are better off playing it safe. He says he expects to see more legislation like the fair pay act take effect during the Obama administration.

"In respect to hiring decisions and the setting of pay at the time of hire, practices should be looking at how they are making those decisions and what criteria they're using to set their pay rates. At the end of the day, if a complaint is filed, what practices are going to need to demonstrate is a nondiscriminatory measure of how they've set salaries," Graham explains. "The more objective criteria that are driving the decision-making process, the better position the employer is going to be in."

For instance, if a male new hire has more certifications than a female hire or is hired with greater job expectations, there is justification for a higher starting pay.

But assuming that the female veterinarian would play a lesser role in the practice should she start a family is not a valid reason for lesser pay, Graham says.

"Don't act on stereotypes in setting hiring salaries, even if it seems like a valid reason," Graham says, adding owners should always document their reasons for why they decided upon a starting salary, raise level or promotion.

"You don't want to find yourself in a position where, down the road, you're without documentation for the decision you made, assuming the decision you made was legitimate and nondiscriminatory," he says.

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