Fresno County education employee pushing for equal pay

The Fresno BeeDecember 11, 2013 

Aileen Rizo

COURTESY PHOTO

A Fresno County Office of Education employee who claims she is unfairly paid thousands of dollars less than a male co-worker with the same job title plans to take her fight to court.

Math consultant Aileen Rizo, 39, plans to sue her employer, who she says ignored her complaints that a newly hired male math consultant was paid $17,000 more than her, even though she had more education and experience.

"My family has suffered economically," she said.

According to Rizo, she learned in 2012 that the new employee was brought on board at a higher step on the agency's 10-step salary scale. The man was hired at step nine, she said, while she started at step one, or $62,000 annually.

She became aware of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which requires employers to pay men and women the same wage for the same work.

Rizo claims it's wrong that she was forced to start at the bottom step since she had a master's degree and 13 years of experience when she moved from Arizona to take the county job in 2010. Rizo has since earned a second master's degree from Fresno Pacific University in secondary math education.

She said she hopes to recover back pay and get a higher salary. "But contributions to retirement, those things cannot be recovered."

Rizo said employee salaries at the county Office of Education are based on previous pay, and because she was paid less in a past job, she started far below him. Her supervisor was surprised to hear about the pay policy and said she'd try to get Rizo some answers.

"But the next week, she came back, pulled me aside and said she was reprimanded," Rizo said. "And she said, 'I'm not allowed to speak with you about this ever again.' "

After hitting several roadblocks, the mother of two said filing a lawsuit is the only option left.

She filed a complaint in May with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a necessary step before a suit can be filed. On Wednesday, Rizo learned that the U.S. Department of Justice has given her the green light to sue.

Her lawyer, Kevin Brunner, said he hopes to move forward with a suit by Dec. 31. He said Rizo should be eligible for two to three years of back pay, but that the case "is not really about the money at this point."

"It's about getting the procedure changed and the way they go about setting the salary of incoming people," he said.

Robert Piacente, legal counsel for the county education office, said the pay policy has been in place since the early 1990's. He said it's both gender and race neutral and helps attract people by guaranteeing higher pay than their previous job.

But Fresno County Office of Education officials declined to speak specifically about Rizo's complaint.

"We have received notice of an EEOC complaint and are awaiting the agency's response," county education office spokeswoman Armen Bacon said in an email. "Due to the fact that this is a personnel matter, we cannot comment at this time."

Rizo is already gaining some national attention for her efforts. She plans to appear on two major network television programs within the next month, and the American Association of University Women has featured her story as part of an online pay inequality series.

"So much of the pay gap is not necessarily based on an apples-to-apples comparison," said Lisa Maatz, AAUW vice president of government relations. "But this was clearly an equal pay for equal work issue that everyone can understand quite easily."

With the future of her daughters -- Diana, 6, and Vivian, 2 -- in mind, Rizo said she's hopeful she'll make real change in her department and elsewhere.

Girls are encouraged to study science, technology, engineering and math, she said, "But what breaks my heart is, if we're truthful to them, we're going to have to tell them they'll be paid less than the man sitting next to them."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, hfurfaro@fresnobee.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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