Democratic U.S. House Rep. Deborah Ross in a 2016 file photo. Ross' attempts at passing equal pay legislation failed in the North Carolina General Assembly in years past, but Democrats in the state legislature say there's new momentum for the bill today. (Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images) Deborah Ross
Democratic U.S. House Rep. Deborah Ross in a 2016 file photo. Ross' attempts at passing equal pay legislation failed in the North Carolina General Assembly in years past, but Democrats in the state legislature say there's new momentum for the bill today. (Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Why supporters in North Carolina say there’s real momentum to address longtime pay gaps between men and women. 

While previous efforts to close the gender pay gap have been blocked, ignored or vilified, North Carolina Democrats and fair wage advocates say they think this time is going to be different. 

NC senators DeAndrea Salvador, Natasha Marcus and Kirk deViere are sponsors of the Equal Pay Act which would require comparable work to be compensated equally. They spoke in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

The bill would also bar asking for salary histories of new hires and ban gender discrimination in wages and benefits.

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“Women in our state deserve to be paid fairly,” Marcus said. “That’s something we should all be able to agree to. Women are a critical part of our economy and their work is just as valuable as men. Yet in about every field … women make less [than men] for comparable work.”

The pay gap is an “obvious injustice” and action is “long overdue,” Marcus added.

US House Rep. Deborah Ross, a former state lawmaker who made several attempts to bring the bill to a vote during her time in the NC General Assembly, said leaders of both parties blocked the bills and even prevented the commission of a study to examine the realities and effects of the wage gap.

But the realities are undeniable and reach across a lifetime.

Women, those studies would have shown, are paid 82% of what men make in comparable jobs, earn less in entry level positions and have only 75% of the retirement savings men do. The data is worth a closer look.

Female bus drivers make 88% of what their male counterparts make. Electricians, 85%; accountants, 80%; architects, 78%; lawyers, 77%. Women in tech make up to 45% less. In all these numbers, the gap between white men and women of color is far worse.

Without a strong family leave policy, women leave work during pregnancy and are often penalized or shut out of the workforce when trying to return.  And the burden of childcare predominantly falls on mothers and rarely fathers.

The pandemic recession made a bad problem worse, advocates said. “Women have been forced to leave work and return home as full-time caregivers as schools closed,” Gloria De Los Santos of ActionNC, a nonprofit combatting poverty and inequality.

Add a glaring lack of family-leave policies and the problem is clear.

“The damage to our lives is enormous,” said Beth Messersmith of Moms Rising. “The pay we lose to discrimination translates into childcare slots we can’t pay for, groceries we can’t buy, student loans we can’t pay off, rent payments we can’t make, gasoline we can’t buy.” 

The bill will not only bring justice, panelists said, it will tend to other long-festering wounds – decreasing child poverty, boosting local businesses. And in a system where single mothers make less than single dads it will turn those glaring data points into relics of the past. 

“NC’s economy is going to rely on women returning back to the labor force. Women’s labor force participation isn’t a nicety; it’s a necessity,” Messersmith said. “The economy is not going to function without us.”