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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cherry-Picking Salary Data in Oregon

An ad from Republican Monica Wehby cherry-picks data to make the case that Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley is “paying the women on his staff thousands less than their male counterparts.”

Actually, in 2013, women earned about 97 cents for every dollar earned by men in Merkley’s office, without accounting for job title, years of experience or other variables. Wehby uses data on less than a third of the staff over a shorter time period to make her claim.

The ad features a chart that highlights average salaries for men and women with three job descriptions — legislative assistant, field representative and press secretary — and suggests women in each case are being paid thousands less than men in the same job.

The chart is based on public records of pay during the last six months of fiscal 2013, a period between April 1, 2013, and  Sept. 30, 2013 — rather than the most recent six-month data in the public record or the full 2013 fiscal year. Merkley’s record looks more favorable if one considers the data for the entire 2013 fiscal year, or current salary data provided by Merkley’s Senate office.

Wehby also used incomplete data. The ad highlights pay disparities in three job categories, but she excluded one male legislative assistant who only worked four of the six months. If his pro-rated pay is included, women fared better in this category than men.

Moreover, by highlighting just three job categories, Wehby cites data for just 11 employees, when the office has 36 staffers. Looking at all of the employees for the entire 2013 fiscal year, male employees in the office earned an average of $56,550 compared with $54,683 for women. So one could say that women earned about 97 cents for every dollar earned by men in Merkley’s office — without accounting for job responsibilities, which vary and account for the higher male salary in the case of press secretaries. Nor does that comparison account for higher pay based on such factors as education, experience and years working on the staff.

“Jeff Merkley has stooped to a new low, shamefully attacking Monica Wehby, the first woman to graduate from her medical program as a neurosurgeon, saying she doesn’t support paying women as much as men,” the ad’s narrator states. “Why would he tell such a ridiculous lie? Senate records reveal that Merkley’s paying the women on his staff thousands less than their male counterparts.”

Wehby, who is trying to make up ground in her bid to unseat Merkley, doesn’t mention this in her ad, but she is referring to Merkley’s criticism of her opposition to the Paycheck Fairness Act. The Democratic-sponsored bill sought to bridge pay disparities between men and women and included provisions that prohibited companies from barring employees from talking with co-workers about their pay; required businesses to give a reason for disparities in pay; and enhanced a woman’s ability to sue employers for punitive damages if she was paid unfairly.

Republicans uniformly opposed the bill, arguing that the law already prohibits unequal pay based on gender, and warning the bill would simply increase civil lawsuits.

“I would absolutely favor any legislation that supports equal pay for women, but this was a flawed piece of legislation,” Wehby said in a KGW-TV interview on Aug. 10. “It did not take into account experience, hours worked, education. I would be concerned that it would make it more difficult for businesses to hire women, because of the fear of lawsuits. They would tend to steer away. And I think that that’s an unintended consequence of laws like this that increase regulation and legislation.”

Ironically, Wehby’s ad accusing Merkley of “paying the women on his staff thousands less than their male counterparts” does not account for some of those very same variables — such as experience, hours worked or education. Moreover, a closer look at the figures cited in the Wehby ad reveal how arbitrary some of the comparisons can be.

Again, all of the ad’s statistics are culled from public records provided in secretary of the Senate reports for the six-month period between April 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2013, the second half of the 2013 fiscal year.

The Wehby campaign notes that under the job description “legislative assistant,” one man made $42,500 and two women averaged $34,546. Not counted was a man who served as a legislative assistant for four of those six months. If his pro-rated salary was included, it would show women were making, on average, nearly $800 more than the men.

Also, although current pay data is not yet in the public record, Merkley’s Senate office provided the press with data that show the office currently employs five legislative assistants, three men with an average annual pay of $67,919, and two women with an average annual pay of $74,533. In other words, they contend, a current chart would flip the script.

With regard to field representatives, the Wehby campaign notes that two men had an average six-month pay of $32,172, while four women had an average pay of $26,568. That disparity held up when we looked at the full 2013 fiscal year or the first six months of the 2014 fiscal year. But according to the current employment data provided by Merkley’s Senate office, there are now three male field representatives making an average yearly salary of $56,578 and three female field representatives making an average annual salary of $56,054.

As for press secretaries, Merkley’s Senate office has two: one male who made $28,000 in the six-month period selected by the Wehby campaign, and one female who made $23,000. The Merkley campaign notes — and public records reflect — that the male press secretary is also responsible for new media communications, which the campaign says accounts for some of the additional pay. In other words, the two positions aren’t the same job.

What should be clear by now is that there are lots of ways to slice this data depending on the time period chosen and whether one includes employees who work only part of the year. The Wehby campaign used parameters that cast the Merkley record in the worst light.

The Merkley campaign provided us with a list of the salaries and gender of all 36 employees on his Senate staff for the entirety of the 2013 fiscal year, and we checked those numbers against public records for accuracy. In all, the 18 male employees in the office earned an average of $56,550, and the 18 female employees earned an average of $54,683.

So one could say that women earned about 97 cents for every dollar earned by men in Merkley’s office. But that isn’t for doing the same jobs. And even among those who do the same job, Merkley’s campaign noted that some are paid more based on education, experience and years working on the staff.

But is this a case of Democrats getting a bit of their own medicine?

Advocating for the Paycheck Fairness Act, some Democrats, such as Sen. Harry Reid, cited a statistic that “women take home 77 cents for every dollar their male colleagues earn for doing exactly the same work.” We looked into a similar claim from President Obama and concluded that it was not true that the figure applied to women doing the same work as men, and that the implication that discrimination by employers is responsible for the difference was an exaggeration.

Some Republicans called Democrats hypocrites, citing an analysis by the Free Beacon — based on public pay records — that said “female staffers in Democratic Senate offices were paid just 91 cents for each dollar paid to male staffers. The average salary for a woman was more than $5,500 below the average salary for a man.” Republicans have cited similar analyses in ads attacking Alaska Sen. Mark Begich and Michigan Senate candidate Rep. Gary Peters claiming they pay females on their staffs less.

But as is the case with Merkley’s staff, judging pay disparity solely on the average salaries of men and women in a given office — without factoring in variables such as whether men and women are performing the same jobs, and whether they have comparable experience, education and years working for a company — can provide an incomplete picture.

— Robert Farley