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Equal Pay Day symbolizes how treatment remains unfair in the workplace

One of the top ten law firms in the world, a math teacher, and an educational institution — sounds like the start to a bad joke, doesn’t it? That may not be too far from the truth. For now this is the current state of my journey — one that some have called a fight for equality. At a young age I decided to become a teacher and the first in my family to finish college, earning a degree in mathematics education. Thus began a 23-year career doing what I love — breaking down barriers in math education.

In 2012, I was a mathematics consultant for the county Office of Education when I found out that a newly hired male would be making nearly $13,000 more than me. Well aware that I had more experience, education, and seniority than he, I made an appointment with the county’s HR administrator to discuss this issue. She explained that when they requested my previous contract in the application packet, it was not to verify my employment, but rather to use my prior-pay information to calculate my salary.

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Aileen Rizo Fresno Bee file

This use of salary history to set current wages is a problematic one. If prior wages were tainted with discrimination, then a new employer is only carrying that discrimination forward. The practice perpetuates a pay gap women have been fighting for decades. In fact, when I asked the HR administrator about the logic in this pay structure, she said, “It’s the way we’ve always done it.” When I came home after my meeting, my daughters ran into my arms like they do at the end of every workday, and it dawned on me that one day my girls would enter the workforce. How might I feel if this was happening to them?

In 2013, I filed a lawsuit and my former employer waged a more than six year war against me. Their newest weapon is Jones Day — one of the top law firms in the world, who has agreed to lead the charge all the way to the Supreme Court pro bono. Why does this matter? Well, several years ago Jones Day fought another equal pay battle against a woman — her name is Lilly Ledbetter. Jones Day won that fight at the Supreme Court in 2007 and Lilly Ledbetter walked away without a penny. Yes, Goodyear admitted to paying her less than the men who did the same job. However in an incredibly harmful decision, later overturned by federal legislation, the Supreme Court said she brought her case too late, even though she didn’t know about the discrimination against her until years after it began.

My case entered the arena five years later, but make no mistake, my story is not an anomaly. There are countless stories about pay discrimination and they have been going on for decades. My family has sacrificed thousands of dollars in legal fees and even more priceless is the energy and time I’ve had to spend away from them fighting this fight. Truth is that many women don’t have that choice. Statistics tell us that 40 percent of households depend on a working woman’s paycheck — a paycheck that has no room for attorney retainer fees. I couldn’t fathom having any woman walking in my shoes, so I became an advocate.

My family and I have traveled to Sacramento about a dozen times to advocate for stronger pay equity laws. When my youngest was 9 months old I held her on stage at the Rosie the Riveter Museum as the governor signed one of the strongest equal pay laws in the nation. There is still much work to do both at the state and national level, that’s why creating awareness on this issue is vital.

On April 2nd, we “celebrate” Equal Pay Day, which is a symbolic day when women’s earnings “catch up” to men’s earnings from the previous year. Reports show that the gender wage gap costs women, on average, more than $900 billion a year. According to another study, if women were paid fairly, it would cut the poverty rate of women in half. This is not just about one woman’s story, it is about our families and our community.

I stand in solidarity with the countless women who experience discrimination in pay. I know what it feels like to sit next to a man who takes more money home to his family when you do the exact same job. It’s demeaning, it’s heartbreaking, and it needs to stop.

Aileen Rizo of Fresno is a wife, mother of three daughters, and mathematics educator.

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