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Buffalo News: Pay Equity can't be left to chance

Wasn't anybody listening?

BY: Rod Watson (mailto:rwatson@buffnews.com)

It's as if the whole national debate about inequality bypassed Erie County's business community.

There's no other explanation for the criticism of County Executive Mark Poloncarz' plan to make sure the "job creators" are helping curb poverty by paying women fairly in exchange for companies' endless series of taxpayer subsidies.

The demand for pay equity at firms seeking Erie County Industrial Development Agency tax breaks has business elites howling about a so­called Poloncarz social agenda that potentially includes everything from making sure workers earn living wages to making sure minority and female firms get a fair shake and that corporate deadbeats don't get more tax breaks.

What they miss is that such proposals jibe with the anti­poverty agenda he unveiled last spring to revitalize a region anchored by one of the poorest major cities in America. Buffalo Niagara will never climb out of poverty as long as women make less than men, minorities can't get business and full­time workers need public aid just to survive.

At the core of the effort is a demand that companies seeking public support show they deserve it by paying women fairly. The tool, still being finalized, is a simple form with job category - manager, technician, etc. - gender, annual hours, pay and length of time employed. Firms also could elaborate on extenuating circumstances - such as extra certifications - that could explain any discrepancies in pay.

"There could be potentially justifiable reasons," said Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte.

Let's face it: The form is not that onerous, especially when you consider the firms are seeking thousands of dollars in tax breaks. The 10 percent of companies to be audited would be randomly selected by computer to keep politics out of it.

The screams that any of these proposals will kill the area's resurgence are the same scare tactics we hear every time efforts are made to hold business accountable. The threat that the pay audit will prompt companies to bypass the ECIDA for one of the five local IDAs should just remind the state again why it should replace them with one countywide agency that won't poach doughnut shops and liquor stores from neighboring communities.

Instead of the audit, are we supposed to just take their word on pay equity when women's median earnings still amount to only 79 percent of what men earn, even though women earn college degrees and attend graduate school at higher rates?

Similarly, are we supposed to just take their word that minorities and women are getting a fair share of the work when demonstrations are being held at local job sites over those very issues?

Are we supposed to just take their word that they'll be good corporate citizens when Syracuse developer Scott Congell, who now wants to develop the former Seneca Mall site in West Seneca, owed nearly $4 million linked to tax breaks he received in Monroe County?

As Ronald Reagan said in another context: Trust, but verify.

It's no more than we ask of anyone who claims they can't get by without the government's help.

But I guess we shouldn't expect corporate welfare to be held to the same standards as individual welfare.

email: rwatson@buffnews.com