Fresno woman wins major court decision in her quest for equal pay for equal work

Aileen Rizo, who sued the Fresno County Office of Education after finding out her salary was less than her male co-worker's, won a case in federal court Monday that could impact how women are paid in California and beyond.

In a published opinion, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that employers cannot pay women less than men for the same work based on their previous salaries, saying that allows workplaces to "capitalize on the persistence of the wage gap" and perpetuates the problem.

Rizo, a math educator who is now running for Republican Jim Patterson's spot in the state Assembly, sued the Fresno County superintendent of schools in 2012 because her newly hired male colleague — who shared the same job title as her but had less education and experience — was being paid $13,000 more.

The Office of Education pointed to a policy that bases salary on history of pay, and last year, the 9th Circuit Court agreed, ruling that using prior salary when calculating a new salary is allowed under the Equal Pay Act. The Equal Pay Act, a federal law passed more than 50 years ago, prohibits salary discrimination based on gender, but women still make about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes.

Rizo urged the court to reconsider, this time with a full panel of the court's judges, and Monday's decision overturned the 2017 ruling, which was criticized by equal-pay advocates across the country.

"The Equal Pay Act stands for a principle as simple as it is just: men and women should receive equal pay for equal work regardless of sex. The question before us is also simple: can an employer justify a wage differential between male and female employees by relying on prior salary? Based on the text, history, and purpose of the Equal Pay Act, the answer is clear: No," U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in the opinion. "... Although the Act has prohibited sex-based wage discrimination for more than fifty years, the financial exploitation of working women embodied by the gender pay gap continues to be an embarrassing reality of our economy."

Reinhardt, 87, died of a heart attack last month. The opinion was published on the eve National Equal Pay Day.

Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Jim Yovino is named in the lawsuit. His office referred questions to Fresno attorney Michael Woods, who said Monday that they "respectfully disagree" with the decision and will petition for a review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We remain confident that the policy of determining salaries by the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools, which was in effect through December 31, 2015, was absolutely gender-neutral, objective and effective in attracting qualified applicants and complied with all applicable laws," Woods said in an email Monday. "FCSS’ policy was applied to more than 3,000 employees over 17 years, was similar to policies used by many other employers and had no disparate impact on female employees, who make up the majority of FCSS employees and its senior administrative staff."

Rizo, 43, who now works as a math researcher, held a news conference outside the federal courthouse in Fresno on Monday to celebrate her win and officially announce her run for state Assembly.

"We are watching a revolution grow," Rizo said. "Women are half the human race. You can't just ignore us. We will no longer let ourselves be paid less, be harassed at work, be assaulted on college campuses and be victims of domestic violence. Our time is now. "

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays