Time to recommit to equal pay for equal work

Last week, I was running around Waterloo, Iowa getting my newly opened business ready to run a concession stand at the annual Cedar Valley Baconfest.

This week, I found myself in Washington testifying at a Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee hearing, sharing my story of taking a stand for women who bring home the bacon.

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The hearing was on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill to strengthen laws that promote equal pay for equal work. As a small business manager and owner, I support it. I’ve seen from experience how pay equity matters to a business.

I serve as operations manager and corporate vice president for a pair of family businesses in Waterloo – a transportation company that hauls parts across the U.S. and into Canada, and a contracting business that provides maintenance services to companies like John Deere.

Our business is a true family business. My father started the company 25 years ago. Back then, it was just him and one partner. Now we employ about 50 people. I’ve also just launched another venture of my own, a popcorn shop called Popcorn Heaven. I opened the doors in February and already have 10 employees.

Small business runs in my blood. So does my commitment to equal pay for equal work.

When I joined my father in the family business eight years ago, I started taking on HR responsibilities. In the process, I found an issue with our paychecks: women were being paid less for the same work.

We had a woman who had been with us for 16 years. She was the one who kept everything in order. Yet, she was only getting paid a little more than half of what male employees were making, even though she had a lot more responsibilities.

I believe people should be paid according to the job they’re doing and the value they bring to a company – nothing less. I refuse to allow women to be paid less because of our gender.

So, I stuck my neck out: I called our accountant and raised the pay of our women workers… without authorization.

Now, I love my father. He is an amazing man and I’ve learned a lot from working with him these past eight years. I am most grateful for that, but when I started working with him he was 65 years old and had an “old school” mentality about women in the workplace.

In the end, my father came around to see things as I see them. He recognizes that the women on our team keep the business afloat. So equal pay for equal work is one of the commitments we make to our employees.

I’m proud of this commitment. But ensuring pay equity isn’t just about doing the right thing – it has a positive impact on our business, too.

It boosts our employees’ morale and their respect for the business. It also boosts retention. Cutting down on turnover saves our business money. It also saves us a lot of stress to know we have a stable, reliable team we can count on to get the job done.

I’m making the same commitment in my new venture: at Popcorn Heaven, we’re proud to offer more than 50 flavors of gourmet popcorn, but only one payscale.

I know the leading opponents of things like pay equity laws are big corporations. But if a start-up small business like mine can commit to pay equity and make it work, then I believe the bigger companies out there can, too.

I support the Paycheck Fairness Act because it’s in line with my values as a business owner. Businesses that are truly committed to pay equity will have nothing to fear from this legislation.

I support it because it will be good for my local economy. Pay equity will put more money in women’s pockets to spend in Waterloo businesses – like taking their kids out to experience a little taste of Popcorn Heaven.

And I support it because it will level the playing field of competition. Small business owners don’t like being forced into a race to the bottom on wages by big box stores and chains that can undercut us by underpaying their women workers. Strengthening pay equity rules will mean we can pay our workers fair wages without fear of being undercut by low-road competitors.

It’s time to redouble our national commitment to equal pay for equal work.

Young is operations manager and corporate vice president for Alpha Express and Alpha Services, family-owned small businesses based in Waterloo, Iowa, and founding owner of Popcorn Heaven, also in Waterloo. She is a leader in the Main Street Alliance small business network.