Bankruptcy Court Revealed “Heartbreaking” Pay InequityMay 09, 2013
Update (April 4, 2014): Kerri Sleeman testified before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on April 1 at a hearing called Access to Justice: Ensuring Equal Pay with the Paycheck Fairness Act. Sleeman told her personal story of pay inequity and shared AAUW research with the senators in a push to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. Sleeman told the committee, “I know that women alone cannot close the pay gap. We need policy makers to do their part and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. I don’t want another woman to go through what I’ve gone through — and what I’m still going through today because of the money I lost to gender-pay discrimination.” Sleeman spoke earlier that day at a press conference on the Paycheck Fairness Act led by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the Senate sponsor of the bill. The press conference also featured Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who is the sponsor on the House side, and several other women senators.
Kerri Sleeman didn’t expect to collect her final paycheck through bankruptcy court when she took a job as a design supervisor at a Michigan firm. And she certainly didn’t expect that her efforts to collect that paycheck would reveal that for years she had made less than men she supervised.
Sleeman worked for five years at a company that designed, built, and installed laser welding assembly systems. Sleeman said company officials told her when she was hired that they didn’t negotiate pay. “The offer is what it is,” they said. So Sleeman took the offer and said she felt honored when they negotiated with her to provide benefits immediately.
Five years later, in 2003, the company was forced into bankruptcy when the automotive industry took a hit. Employees of the company had to go through bankruptcy court for their final paychecks and any back vacation pay owed. Sleeman opted to sign up for a mailing list so she could see the bankruptcy court’s list of claims. People she had supervised were on that list — and she said their claims for two weeks of pay were larger than hers.
“It was heartbreaking,” Sleeman said. “I was disappointed and angry and thought that maybe someday I could figure out why it had happened.”
Soon after, Sleeman talked to her former supervisor and asked him about the pay disparity. He said that she probably wasn’t misled — salaries likely weren’t negotiable when she was hired. But he said that the people she supervised — lots of young men — were the sole breadwinners for their wives and children, and that was probably taken into account when their salaries were figured. Sleeman was married at the time but had no children — and, of course, was a woman. The supervisor was not apologetic, Sleeman said.
Yet Sleeman said this was the same supervisor who had told her again and again, “If I could duplicate you, I’d be able to get rid of the rest of the staff.” Sleeman thought back to times where she had taken over projects for some of these men because they weren’t performing. But she feels the value of her work apparently didn’t matter as much because she was not a male breadwinner.
“The worst thing about it is that I don’t know if there was anything I could have done differently because they had told me they wouldn’t negotiate and that was that,” she said.
These feelings of frustration led Sleeman to become passionate about pay equity and salary negotiation. She serves as a regional field manager for AAUW and the WAGE Project’s $tart $mart salary negotiation workshops.
“I applied because I thought, Here’s a way for me to do something. Because it had kind of festered there for a long time,” she said. “I wanted to have a positive impact instead of just being angry about it.”
Sleeman leads the workshops on college campuses, teaching women students how to negotiate their salaries. The knowledge she has gained as a facilitator helped her realize that maybe she could have negotiated more on her annual raises even if she wasn’t able to negotiate her salary up front.
“We have to focus on the things that we can try and do,” she said.
But there’s nothing she can do now to get back the money she lost to pay inequity — more than $10,000 in pay and retirement benefits, Sleeman estimates. And, as her father-in-law noted, that’s not just money she doesn’t have — it’s money her family doesn’t have either.
“Pay inequity is a family issue,” Sleeman said. “It affects everybody.”