SPECIAL REPORT: NewsChannel 7 Breaks Down Truth of Equal Pay Attack Ad

The “war against women" that Democrats say Republicans in the Wis. legislature have launched in recent weeks rages on. From abortion-restriction bills, to abstinence-only courses in schools, the issues women's rights advocates fight for, have taken a hard hit. And those who are running for office in the upcoming recall elections, are using every issue to their advantage.

NewsChannel 7 took a closer look at a recent political attack ad targeting women voters, to find out what’s true, what’s misleading and what’s completely false. The TV ad is from Rep. Donna Seidel (D-Wausau), who's running for the 29th Senate District seat against Rep. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon). The ad jabs at Petrowski on several points. The major one is the recent repeal of a 2009 provision of Wisconsin Fair Employment Law.

The ad begins, "I have something to say to Jerry Petrowski. I work hard everyday. And you think women shouldn't get paid the same as men for doing the same work?"

Equal pay for equal work. It's a concept that dates back to a federal law signed by President Kennedy in 1963. But fast forward to today, and the numbers are far from equal. A 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office shows women make 86 cents for every dollar men do.

So what does Rep. Petrowski have to do with that? The Wisconsin legislature rescinded a 2009 state law (SB 202) last month that allowed victims of workplace discrimination to sue an employer in circuit court for punitive and compensatory damages. Rep. Retrowski voted in favor of that repeal. But this needs clarification. It's true that prior to the law victims could only sue for reinstatement of their jobs, back pay and legal fees at the state level. However, employment law attorney Brian Formella of Stevens Point says SB 202 was flawed from the beginning.

"One dance was to go through the administrative process through the Dept. of Workforce Development (DWD) to get a determination of discrimination,” Formella said. “The second step of the dance was to file in circuit court. So that was kind of an unusual two step. So even then, there wasn't this perfect dance that the federal system has where you can go to federal court, and if you're successful in your case, you can claim damages for compensatory and punitive.”

Victims have always been able to collect damages through the federal courts, and Republicans say the repeal was necessary so that companies didn't become victims themselves of frivolous lawsuits. But Democrats argue the federal context is more costly and therefore deters victims from coming forward.

"I think anyone who claims discrimination in the state of Wis. no longer have pools of certain damages,” Formella said.

The most important question to ask then is, was this law effective in the two plus years it had been in place?

"What I've read is that it hasn't even been exercised a lot," Formella said.

In fact, according to DWD, it hasn't been exercised at all. The number of people who successfully filed a lawsuit and collected damages under the 2009 law is zero. Women's rights advocates say that could also be a sign the law was working, and employers were more careful about discrimination.

Bottom line, the ad is misleading. It tackles of very real issue, pay inequality among the sexes. But it's unclear whether the repeal means women will now be at a greater disadvantage than they were when the law was in place. It's also unclear whether a vote to repeal that law says anything about Rep. Petrowski's view on equal pay in the workplace.


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