Educator Says Lawsuit Only Option Left in Fight for Fair PayApril 30, 2013
January 15, 2014 Update: Aileen Rizo was interviewed by Maria Shriver on the January 14 broadcast of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Rizo told Shriver how her heart dropped when she discovered the pay gap between her salary and the salary of a male colleague and said that her fight for fair pay is about the future for her daughters. Rizo’s fight is moving to the next level: She recently won the right to sue her employer and expects to file suit soon.
Author’s note: The following blog post tells a story of gender pay inequity — a situation we hear about too often at AAUW. I have presented the story as told to me by Aileen Rizo and have not independently verified the facts of the case.
One year ago, Aileen Rizo loved her job, worked hard, and believed in her organization. Today, she still loves that job and works hard, but she’s pursuing a lawsuit in an effort to receive the pay she believes she deserves.
Rizo doesn’t want a lawsuit. She wants to be able to do her job well, receive a fair paycheck, and go home to her husband and kids. But she says she has been denied that opportunity, along with thousands of dollars, by an employer who refuses to pay her fairly based on her experience and education. So now, in addition to coaching teachers on their math lessons and playing with her two young daughters, Rizo meets with her lawyer and worries about when this will ever be over — and what the outcome will be.
Rizo works as a math consultant at a California county office that supports dozens of school districts. Last summer, after three years on the job, she said she learned via a lunch with co-workers that a man just hired as a math consultant had started at a much higher salary. According to Rizo, employees at the office are paid on a 10-step scale and advance one step each year. This new employee told his colleagues that he started on step nine. Rizo had started at step one and had moved up a step per year.
Her heart sank as the conversation went on around her. That couldn’t be right. She had started with more experience and more education than this new colleague.
“I really believed it was just a mistake,” she said. “I believed in the integrity of the administration, that they would fix it.”
So Rizo said she went to human resources with every hope that this problem would be solved quickly. According to Rizo, the human resources employee offered little other than to say a formula decided salaries. The HR representative reportedly grew more serious when Rizo, the only full-time woman and only minority in the department, mentioned the Equal Pay Act of 1963.
Rizo said the HR representative told her that she would hear back in a week. A week went by, and human resources asked for more time. A month went by, and Rizo called to follow up. At that point, Rizo said she told human resources that she intended to go through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to Rizo, human resources then gave her a letter that confirmed what she had suspected: HR didn’t plan to do anything.
Rizo was upset but said she comforted herself with the thought that HR didn’t know her — she’d try one of her supervisors instead. Her supervisor’s supervisor was appalled to hear the tale, Rizo said.
“I said I felt belittled and undervalued because of the discrepancy in pay,” Rizo recalled. The supervisor said, “You’ll never catch up to him. I don’t know how we’ll fix this, but we’re going to tackle this together.”
Rizo felt bolstered by the woman’s passion, only to be deflated a week later when the supervisor reportedly told Rizo that she would not be able to follow through. According to Rizo, the supervisor said she had been reprimanded severely and could no longer talk to Rizo about the issue. At that moment, the fight became Rizo’s alone.
She filled in her immediate supervisor, who, according to Rizo, said her salary “didn’t sound right” but that if their boss couldn’t help Rizo, neither could he. Shortly after that, Rizo said she attended a department meeting where a new standard operating procedure was announced: Employees were now required to go directly to their supervisors for all issues — they couldn’t skip a level of management.
“At that meeting, it felt like they were closing doors on me,” Rizo said. “I really felt like I didn’t have a voice anymore. They wanted me to sit back.”
And part of her wanted to do just that. This fight wasn’t easy, and she wasn’t getting any support. But then she thought of her two young daughters and knew she had to forge ahead. So she hired legal counsel with experience in discrimination issues, and they filed a complaint with the EEOC and are waiting for the go-ahead to sue. Rizo said her lawyer sent a demand letter to her employer looking to resolve the situation, but her employer stood by the salary policy.
The policy, according to Rizo, does not take into consideration experience or education. The policy simply sets salary based on a person’s prior pay — generally a 5 percent increase. But Rizo had come from a state where the cost of living is much less than California’s, so step one on the pay scale represented a 19 percent increase for her — but nowhere close to what she believes she deserved to be paid.
“If you only use prior pay to set salaries, then you are perpetuating the pay gap,” Rizo said. “It doesn’t make any sense. I have more seniority, more experience, and more education, and I’ll never catch up to this colleague’s pay.”
Now Rizo goes to work every day burdened with the weight of what she has to do to simply try to earn fair pay. She said most of her colleagues know that she is pursuing a lawsuit, and everything is fine with them and with her supervisor. She shares an office with the man she discovered makes more than she does and said he’s a great guy.
“I’ve never felt undermined,” she said. “I would like to continue working there. I love what I do and the teachers and students I help in this position.”
Rizo went into math education after hearing so many girls say they hate math. She set out to be a role model to encourage girls to pursue math, and she is committed to seeing her lawsuit through — for herself and for all women and girls.
“I don’t want another girl to feel after she’s worked so hard that she’s not worth the same as the man sitting next to her,” Rizo said.