by Brad Cave
Paying an experienced female registered nurse (RN) less than a newly licensed male RN has a Wyoming healthcare employer defending a lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). On September 28, 2018, the EEOC filed a complaint in the federal court in Wyoming alleging that Interim Healthcare of Wyoming, Inc. (Interim) violated the Equal Pay Act and Title VII by paying employees of one sex lower wages than employees of the opposite sex for substantially equal work.
Pay Inequity Among RNs is Alleged
According to the complaint, female Nicole Aaker was hired by Interim as a Home Care RN in November 2015. Aaker had received her RN license from the Wyoming State Board of Nursing in June 1998 and at the time of her hire, had about 17 years of professional RN experience. Interim paid her $28 per hour.
The complaint alleges that Interim hired male RN Bailey Jessee as a Home Care RN in late May 2015, about six months prior to hiring Aaker. Jessee had just received his RN license from the State Board of Nursing in February 2015 and he had about two months of professional RN experience. Interim paid him $29 per hour.
Further statements in the complaint allege that at least five additional female nurses were paid hourly rates less than the $29 per hour rate paid by Interim to Jessee, including the following:
- Female RN with about 2 years of experience was paid $26 per hour
- Female RN with about 18 years of experience was paid $28 per hour
- Female RN with about 30 years of experience was paid $26 per hour
- Female RN with about 26 years of experience was paid $28.50 per hour
- Female RN with about one month of experience was paid $26 per hour, and was given a raise to $28 per hour after over a year of employment with Interim.
Employer Allegedly Fails to Respond to Internal Complaints
Interestingly, it was the male RN, Bailey Jessee, who appears to have raised the initial complaints to Interim about the disparity in his pay and Aaker’s pay, according to the complaint. Jessee allegedly raised the pay disparity issue at least twice to Interim Administrator Crystal Burback who responded that the pay difference was due to experience. When Jessee replied that Aaker had a lot more nursing experience than he did, Burback allegedly became angry and told Jessee that he shouldn’t discuss his salary at all.
The complaint further alleges that on another occasion, Jessee told Interim Director of Healthcare Service Lori Norby and Crystal Burback that he would be willing to take a pay cut to make his pay rate equal with Aaker’s hourly rate. Although Norby seemed willing to accept that offer, Burback allegedly became angry and defensive. A few months later, Jessee resigned from Interim.
The allegations in the complaint state that Aaker also complained to Burback about the pay discrepancy between her hourly rate and Jessee’s rate. Burback allegedly first responded that she was paid “per experience,” and then responded that it didn’t matter if Aaker had more experience than Jessee – she was hired at $28 per hour and it would not change. The complaint alleges that after receiving no response to her complaints, Aaker was constructively discharged on April 29, 2016.
Sex Discrimination Claim
Although the Equal Pay Act violation is front and center in the EEOC’s complaint, the allegations include that Aaker and other female nurses were subjected to working conditions involving sex discrimination that were so intolerable that the female nurses felt compelled to resign. In alleging constructive discharge based on sex, the EEOC writes that Burback engaged in inappropriate workplace conduct, including regularly demeaning Aaker, calling Aaker “stupid,” telling Aaker that she was not doing her job, slapping Aaker on the buttocks, and, in the presence of Aaker, grabbing a female social worker’s breast.
EEOC Seeks Damages and an Injunction
The EEOC has made enforcement of equal pay laws one of its six national priorities as specified in its Strategic Enforcement Plan. In the Interim lawsuit, the EEOC seeks a permanent injunction to stop Interim from engaging in compensation discrimination based on sex. The agency further seeks back pay damages for the female nurses for lost wages, liquidated damages, damages to compensate for pain and suffering, and punitive damages.
Audit Your Pay Practices for Disparities
Due to the EEOC’s focus on compensation practices that discriminate based on gender, employers are well advised to audit their own pay practices to determine whether they are paying employees in substantially similar jobs differently along gender lines. If so, take proactive steps now to correct any equal pay issues so that you do not become the EEOC’s next target.