Pima County can reduce poverty with pay equity

When I became the managing librarian at the Sahuarita Library, I was asked to join the Better Together Coalition, which focuses on community support and economic development in the region. In May 2023, Bonnie Bazata (program manager for Ending Poverty Now) gave a presentation on the Prosperity Initiative, an intergovernmental effort that aims to develop wealthier communities in Pima County through policies that improve opportunity and reduce generational poverty. I learned 15 percent of households (20 percent of children) experience poverty in Pima County and that historic forms of systemic discrimination contribute to generational impacts that make it difficult to break the cycle of poverty. 

While many local organizations work ceaselessly and admirably to address immediate needs and alleviate suffering, Bazata said these efforts are often not enough to move people out of poverty.

Jim Kiser, former director of Governance Policy for the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, followed with a presentation on economic opportunity in greater Tucson. He said that poverty is not the result of personal failures, rather the result of policies – policies that can be changed. Half of the jobs in Pima County are low wage, according to the Brookings Institution, he said, and while continued education can help, it’s not the answer. Kiser stated that improving parents’ income is the best way to improve a child’s future economic prospects, which made me think about another statistic – 40 percent of mothers are the sole or dominant breadwinner of their families. I wondered how low pay in women-dominated fields contributed to poverty rates and whether Pima County could look at pay equity within its own workforce to increase economic stability for families.

As a public librarian, I work in a department filled with 75 percent female-identifying employees and we’ve noticed our salaries are lower than comparable positions in male-dominated fields. I serve on a staffing committee researching job classifications, gender pay gaps, turnover, and staffing models. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women’s-to-men’s earnings ratio was 82.3 percent in 2020 but varies by race and ethnicity and gets worse with each level of educational attainment.

As an example, Black and Latina women with a bachelor’s degree earn only 65 percent of the salaries earned by white men with similar education. Nancy Folbre’s extensive research for the Economic Policy Institute concluded that the disadvantages women experience in the labor market cannot be blamed on their own choices – for example, choosing to work in low-paying fields or taking time off to care for family members. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research concurs that occupational segregation is a major contributor to the gender wage gap. Research from public sector job evaluation studies in the 1970s consistently showed that positions with more women were categorized into lower pay grades and fell short of men’s pay by roughly 20 percent.

In 1978, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission commissioned a study on occupational classifications. Evidence showed that only a small portion of male-female wage disparities were accounted for by differences in education, work experience, or productivity. The final report – Women, Work, and Wages – concluded that the vast discrepancies in earnings by sex were caused by job segmentation and mid-century employment practices that permitted different rates of pay for men and women. 

Instead of using the market wage as a standard and thus perpetuating historical discrimination, researchers encouraged employers to conduct internal job evaluations that used a point system based on skill, education, and working conditions to remove biases and establish fair salary structures.

Our committee shared research related to occupational segregation with Pima County’s HR Department and encouraged leaders to consider how actions and systems perpetuate gender pay gaps as they modify job classifications and pay structures. 

Last year, the Board of Supervisors approved a $380,000 Classification and Compensation study conducted by CBIZ Talent and Compensation Solutions. When the results were released in June 2023, we learned that they used external market pay rates – salaries for similar classifications in other organizations and cities – as benchmarks rather than internal comparisons across occupational boundaries, explaining, “The market study was not a gender equity study; rather, the pay for each classification was based on the value of that specific classification in the market.” 

This is worrisome because gender biases embedded in earlier wage-setting set the stage for today’s market rates.

The report also hinted at the use of geographic influences when making market comparisons, noting “many jobs in an organization are recruited locally while professional jobs may be recruited statewide or regionally.” CBIZ didn’t define ‘professional’ or include a list of comparators, citing proprietary reasons, so we don’t know exactly which regions were used for each classification. 

However, since Tucson is a low-wage town, using local comparators would theoretically hold pay down. The report shows that new salary ranges for employees in lower grades saw mostly small increases for the minimum of their pay range, maybe $1,000 annually as an example. However, many of those classifications also saw their maximums lowered, which will reduce employees’ placement in the range, as well as future earning power in that role.

On the other end of the spectrum, CBIZ appeared to use a wider net for comparisons. “While Arizona is expected to be the primary market for recruiting employees, when considering senior management positions, it is most reasonable to adjust the data to the higher of the local or national market.” Senior level employees are seeing increases for both minimums and maximums in the $30,000-50,000 range, suggesting their pay ranges were pulled up by national or regional market rates.

Incomes for the wealthiest 20 percent of Pima County households are already 15 times higher those of the bottom 20 percent. The top quintile holds half of Pima County’s wealth. The lower quintile, just three percent. In Opportunity in Tucson and Pima County and the Tucson Sentinel’s series, “A Tale of Two Tucsons,” Kiser reported that Tucson is ninth from the bottom of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in economic mobility for local youth. When they grow up, “Tucson boys and girls not only make less money, they rank near the bottom of the nation.” Four out of 10 will not be able to break the cycle of poverty. Pima County acknowledged the need for jobs at all levels that pay a livable wage in its 2019-2021 Economic Development Plan. The report describes efforts to recruit employers with quality jobs that provide increased disposable income so that more workers “have money to spend in the community, creating a multiplier effect for other service and retail businesses.” 

According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, the living wage for a single parent with one child in Pima County is over $70,000 per year ($89,000 for a caregiver with two children). A county worker would need to reach grade 16 to earn a minimum starting salary of $73,189, but the starting pay for 75 percent of the new job classifications falls below this level. Pima County’s compensation changes are therefore in sharp contrast with its own economic goals.

Throughout the nation, women make up 60 percent of state and local government workforces, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Yet within those agencies, women represent an even greater share (68.7%) of workers who are paid less than $15 an hour.

Since Black, Hispanic, and women workers are more concentrated in lower-paid positions, “they stand to gain even more if pay increases in the public sector prioritize lower-paid workers.” Kiser reminds us that in 2018, “female-headed households with no male present and at least one child under 5 years of age had a 36.6% poverty rate.”

If women in Arizona were paid the same as comparable men, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research says their poverty rate would be cut in half. Pay equity is the key to families thriving instead of surviving. We know that federal stimulus checks lifted many families out of poverty during the pandemic simply because parents had more money in their pockets. Investing in government workers who dedicate their lives to public service would send a powerful message of community empowerment. Organizations that proactively engage in pay equity practices have a competitive advantage and are better positioned to attract and retain top talent, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s report, “Bridging the Pay Gap.” Those who don’t experience higher distrust and turnover. Turnover rates for Pima County as an employer hover around 22 percent annually.

At the July 25 Board of Supervisors meeting, Human Resources Director Cathy Bohland said it’s critical that we modernize outdated policies and practices. Public sector employers can begin by comparing salary ranges for workers in racial-, ethnic-, or gender-segregated positions not to other undervalued, underpaid classifications in other cities (and thus perpetuating historically discriminatory pay rates), but to positions within their organization that require comparable skills, responsibilities, and education.

According to the Department of Labor, job content rather than job titles is what determines the equitability of two different jobs. All workers have the right to receive equal pay if they perform comparable work in the same workplace. The Prosperity Initiative aims to establish policies that focus on ensuring the availability of jobs capable of supporting a household. With this goal in mind, government employers have an opportunity to improve their workers’ wages and retention rates while reducing taxpayer costs associated with excessive hiring and training. Kiser’s report acknowledges that opportunity requires community commitment. As new policies are written, how can intergovernmental partnerships between member agencies – the American Indian Association of Tucson, city of Tucson, Marana, Oro Valley, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Pima County, town of Sahuarita, city of South Tucson, and the Tohono O’Odham Nation – establish transparency around a shared commitment towards equitable pay practices?

Other cities are stepping up to this challenge. Austin and Portland have started conducting regular pay equity audits. Albuquerque, Bernalillo County, and their Water Authority are currently partnering on a Gender Pay Equity Initiative to help close their gender wage gap. In Chicago, former Mayor Lightfoot ordered a bi-annual gender and racial pay equity audit of the city’s workforce while calling on partners in the private sector to pursue policies that create more inclusive workplaces.

While I highly commend the Prosperity Initiative’s efforts to increase access to affordable housing and early childhood education (which will cut household costs), how can we build long-term economic stability by ensuring fair pay for workers? What changes would we see if employees felt valued, if they were given the pride and empowerment that comes with an equitable wage? And how would higher productivity and retention rates contribute to improved public services for taxpayers?

Members of the Prosperity Initiative are committed to strategies that consider the impact of historic and systemic inequities. Guidelines insist that new policies must target populations experiencing the highest rates of poverty – children, single mothers, individuals and families of color, and seniors. The average woman loses $530,000 in lifetime earnings over the course of her career because of the gender pay gap, a loss that affects her family and future generations. And since four out of five single parents are women and parental income has a lasting effect on a child’s future earning power, fair pay is vital to decreasing generational poverty. 

When an update on the initiative was presented at the Tucson City Council meeting on April 4, Councilmember Lane Santa Cruz described poverty as a symptom of the over-accumulation of wealth. Mayor Regina Romero added, “We haven’t been attacking the root of the problem in our region.” She asked the group, “How can we invest in communities that have historically been disinvested in?”

Government agencies are uniquely positioned to reduce poverty rates by eliminating racial and gender pay gaps in their workforces while setting an example for regional employers. 

Equitable public sector pay rates could create higher benchmarks for private employers as they conduct their own market-based studies, further contributing to economic prosperity in the region. 

Adding the topic of pay equity to future meeting agendas is the first step to holding these long-overdue discussions. What are the barriers to achieving pay equity? And how can we work together to overcome them? We can’t wait for outdated markets to catch up with modern DEI practices. Local leaders must demonstrate that pay equity is a top priority.