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Single Status pay parity creates new problems for public sector

Has the aim to equalise pay between men and women gone too far? Last week, Flintshire Council announced that its staff would face pay cuts of up to 25% in order for the council to even out discrepancies in wages between men and women on its payroll. The decision has been met with anger from both employees and employers, but is such a measure really required under the new proposed Equality Bill?

The Equality Bill, expected to fully come into force in the autumn of 2010, has set the benchmark for removing unequal pay between men and women. Employers should by now be fully aware of their obligations under the Bill and local authorities, in particular, have been preparing for some time. 

For around 12 years councils across the country have been working towards implementing unified pay and grading structures in order to remove pay differences between men and women undertaking similar jobs. The framework, known as Single Status, was supposed to be in place across all public authorities by April 2007. Only a handful of councils met the deadline and many authorities are now struggling to complete the process before the Equality Bill comes into play next year.

In 1997, the Single Status Agreement was signed by local authorities to align terms and conditions of employment among council workers. Employers were to develop a common pay scale for all jobs, based on the premise of equal pay for women employed in jobs of equal value to those carried out by male employees. 

But is it actually that straightforward - and why the recent backlash?

In the past, although certain jobs in local government were graded the same for women as for men, men received bonuses or other such benefits whereas women did not. Historically, bonus payments for male manual workers were often introduced where there was a measurable productivity element to the job - namely, bonuses were paid based on the worker's output.  However, women in traditionally ‘female' manual roles such as carers did not receive these bonuses. It was believed bonus payments were not applicable to work based on personal care and therefore female workers lost out on such benefits. Recent equal pay cases have challenged bonus payments and today a majority of bonuses for male employees are being removed as they can no longer be defended by the councils. 

But now male local government workers are up in arms about their basic pay being reduced. Despite the benefits to female employees in terms of finally receiving equal pay, across the country many male workers are now finding they will be earning significantly less after Single Status, either as a result of losing their bonus or their job being re-evaluated on a lower grade and so attracting a lower salary.

In an attempt to help cushion the blow faced by such workers, many councils are implementing ‘pay protection'.  This means that workers whose jobs have been downgraded by Single Status will receive their current salary for a couple of years before accepting the wage decrease. 

But even this has its problems. In the recent case of Hartley vs Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, pay protection was challenged on the basis that it was discriminatory to female NHS employees. It was eventually ruled that a short-term measure such as pay protection is justified if it is a step towards the long-term objective of eliminating pay inequalities between men and women, although it would appear that many female employees are more concerned with their pay in the short-term.

To ease the fears of their employees, local authorities need to ensure that they are communicating with their staff about new pay and grading structures and particularly with those who will be adversely affected by the new scheme. Some employees are likely to lose up to thousands of pounds from their salary every year and, in the current climate, this could have a huge effect on morale.

Single Status will cause disruption and even hardship to many workers who are already some of the lowest paid in the country. Despite being the culmination of over a decade's hard work in achieving pay equality for women, there will always be winners and losers. Bringing equality doesn't come easy. 

Jawaid Rehman is an equal pay specialist solicitor at law firm Weightmans