How New York mayor de Blasio trumped Obama on equal pay for women

Equal pay is a big election year issue for President Obama. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio just announced a big settlement on the issue as part of his 'liberal laboratory.'

Ricardo Arduengo/AP
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has settled a gender discrimination lawsuit brought four years ago by the New York Police Department’s school safety division, 70 percent of whose employees are women.

While ensuring equal pay for women remains an election year priority for the Obama administration and many Democrats on the campaign trail this year, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has been able to take the kind of action many women have long been seeking.

On Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio used Women’s Equality Day – the national commemoration of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote – to fulfill a campaign pledge last year and settle a gender discrimination lawsuit brought four years ago by the New York Police Department’s school safety division, 70 percent of whose employees are women.

The school safety division is a force of 5,000 uniformed agents who don’t carry guns but make arrests. Typically, safety agents earned $7,000 less than the NYPD’s “special officers” division, a similarly unarmed force that is 70 percent men, and who patrol the city’s public buildings, such as hospitals and homeless shelters. Both divisions undergo similar training and have similar duties, the officers’ union says.

Under the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York officials had fought the agents' lawsuit since 2010. But on Tuesday, de Blasio announced the city would now provide $38 million in back pay for current and former school safety agents – who are also mostly black and Latina – pending court approval.

“We have a moral, human obligation to ensure that everyone is treated equally in all forms of employment,” the mayor said at a press conference in Brooklyn Tuesday.

De Blasio’s announcement comes during national debate about equal pay for women, an issue highlighted by Obama throughout his tenure. In April, he signed an executive order requiring federal contractors to provide the Labor Department summary data on how much they pay their employees, including data by sex and race.

That same week, Senate Republicans blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would require employers to be transparent about pay differences and to be able justify any gaps existing between men and women.  

"At a time when the Obama economy is already hurting women so much, this legislation would double down on job loss, all while lining the pockets of trial lawyers," said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky before the vote in April. Many Republicans also argue that the pay gaps between genders disappear when various social factors are taken into account.

But as such efforts to bolster federal equal pay laws are stymied in Washington, de Blasio has been hailed by women’s groups for his gender equality efforts. Indeed, over half the top jobs in his administration are held by women, and the mayor has been making the city, in effect, a laboratory for liberal ideas and legislation.

“It’s not clear to me that the only issue here was gender equity, than it was also labor peace,” says Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in Manhattan. “It’s also not clear to me that the issue here wasn’t the schools. Beyond the suggestion that women doing this job are underpaid, there’s the question about whether school security should be in the hands of underpaid workers.”

Indeed, the settlement was part of de Blasio’s most recent contract agreement with city workers, the vast majority of whom had been working under expired contracts under Bloomberg – who had an often tempestuous relationship with the city’s unions during his 12 years in office.

But de Blasio has made a priority of negotiating new contracts with the city’s more than 150 bargaining units, including the union that represents the NYPD’s school safety agents and special officers.

On Tuesday, the Mayor announced a tentative $68 million contract settlement with the city’s unarmed peace officers, a seven-year agreement that provides a 10 percent raise – not including the $38 million in back pay the lawsuit settlement will provide.

The deal will also include an additional $47 million to bring the mostly female school safety agents up to par with their mostly male counterparts in the special officers division.

“I think that [the lawsuit settlement] is indeed part of a new ‘liberal laboratory’ in New York,” says Professor Sherrill. “And the point is, you can deal with multiple problems with a single action. You can deal with gender equity, you can deal with school safety, you can deal with general relations with the unions – it was a smart move.”

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