Reader: I am a 16-year-old girl hired to lifeguard at my local pool for $12.50/hour. Another teen girl, Natasha, was hired later at the same rate. I recently learned we were both being paid less than two male lifeguards, Steve and Tony, who were hired after both of us at $14/hour. I am friends with Steve and Tony, we are the same age and have the same prior experience, and we all work part-time doing exactly the same job.
I emailed the pool management company and asked to be paid the same as Steve and Tony. The pool company then asked me for my availability, which was strange because they already had our schedules. The pool company then lowered Steve’s hourly rate to $12.50 and Tony’s to $13 and raised Natasha’s to $13. They did not change my rate. The pool company claimed they had reviewed our “availability” and that this “triggered” the new pay rates. But I was not any less available to work than the boys were, and the company had never before indicated our wage would fluctuate based on availability. Also, they never explained exactly what kind of availability qualified for each hourly rate. It felt like they were looking for an excuse for why I was being paid less.
After doing some research online, I sent another email pointing out that it’s illegal to pay different wages to men and women doing the same job and also illegal to reduce the wages of either sex to equalize their pay. The pool company then said they were going to start paying all of us $13.50/hour with a bonus for anyone completing over a certain number of hours. That is still lower than the wage Steve and Tony were hired at.
I believe I should be paid $14/hour retroactive to the day I began working. What do you think?
Karla: What I think is that I’m about to get inundated with employment attorneys who want to either take your case or offer you an internship.
Lisa Schnall, a senior attorney-adviser in the EEOC Office of Legal Counsel, couldn’t address whether your specific situation is legal without knowing all the details. But she did reply that it “raises potential issues under the Equal Pay Act, which requires that men and women who perform substantially equal work receive equal pay, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits, among other things, sex discrimination in employment, including with respect to compensation.” Schnall also confirmed that “the EPA expressly prohibits lowering the pay of any employee to correct a pay differential that violates the EPA.”
So, yeah, it sounds like your employer goofed once by paying male and female lifeguards different rates for doing the same job, and then again by cutting the guys’ pay in an attempt to even things out.
Maybe the pay disparity was due to sex bias — for example, hiring managers assuming boys could do the job better than girls regardless of training, or that boys need more money for dates. (Fun fact: “He has a family to support” used to be a common justification for paying married men more than women.)
Or maybe it had nothing to do with bias. Teen lifeguards are in short supply nationally; it’s possible that after hiring you and Natasha, your employer upped its ante to attract more candidates, so later applicants got better offers.
But whatever the reasoning, the result was still that equally qualified male and female employees were doing the same job for different pay rates, so you were justified in questioning it. There still may be legitimate reasons for that pay discrepancy — but the pool company suddenly retconning rates on the vague basis of “availability” only after you pointed it out “sounds fishy to me,” says Amy Epstein Gluck, employment law partner with FisherBroyles.
So what should you do now?
Learn your rights. You seem to have this covered, but for general information: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has a Youth@Work website that spells out those rights clearly. Your state’s employment agency may have even stricter equal-pay rules; WorkplaceFairness.org has handy links for each state.
Gather your proof. Document dates, names, conversations. Keep all emails. Organize your pay stubs and any other evidence of hours you’ve worked and pay you’ve received.
File a complaint. You can submit a wage discrimination complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission through its online portal or one of its field offices, or call 800-669-4000 to get started. You should file with your state, too. It may take months for your filings to work their way through the system, and there are deadlines for filing after an incident, so get that ball rolling sooner rather than later.
Be proud. It’s not easy challenging your employer, even as an adult. And your complaint may not get the results you’re hoping for. But this is excellent practice for learning to advocate for yourself, even if it’s not the kind of work experience you were expecting from a summer job.
Pro tip: Epstein Gluck recommends that employers periodically audit pay practices “especially as we go back to the workplace,” to make sure they’re compensating workers appropriately and equitably based on performance, not on irrelevant or possibly discriminatory factors.