Dems, women’s group slam Shirkey for equal pay comments

By: - January 17, 2019 12:09 am

Susan J. Demas photo

Advice from Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) on how state contractors should deal with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s new equal pay directive is being met with criticism from Democrats and a women’s group.

Mike Shirkey

Last week, Shirkey told the Advance in an interview that he does not believe in the existence of a wage gap between men and women. His advice to state contractors wondering if the new directive applies to them?

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

On Jan. 8, the newly inaugurated Democratic governor signed an executive directive she says is meant to ensure “equal pay for equal work.” It would stop state departments and agencies from asking about or investigating applicants’ prior salary.

Shirkey’s skepticism of a gender wage gap and Whitmer’s directive did not go over well with many progressives.

“Unless you walk in other people’s shoes, you have no idea of what people are going through,” said Vicki Dwelley, a Democratic activist with the Oakland County chapter of the progressive Indivisible group. “And since he’s [Shirkey] never been a women, he probably has no idea what they go through.”

Dwelley added, “He also might want to look at the facts … and that’s my biggest concern with people who make statements who haven’t done enough research.”

Newly elected state Rep. Kara Hope (D-Delhi Twp.) responded on social media with sarcasm.

As the Advance reported, many organizations have documented the existence of a wage gap between men and women in annual salaries, including the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Shirkey said he does not believe in such a gap. He said statistics can be used to support any argument.

“Well, the notion of ‘average’ is something that nobody should take at face value and say, ‘That means something,’” Shirkey said. “That is like looking through a piece of paper that has a pinhole in it and thinking that that means something. Every average is a data point, but it is not information. I can calculate averages 27 different ways. So it’s just a datapoint; it’s not information.”

Gretchen Whitmer at the 2012 “Vaginagate” protest at the Michigan Capitol

Shirkey also said the directive is likely creating confusion among state contractors about whether it applies to them and how to comply. He said he doubts it applies to contractors outside of Whitmer’s executive purview, so they should ignore simply ignore it.

“Well I think senator Shirkey’s comments regarding his view of the pay gap, I think he was clear about his opinion of that,” Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann said Wednesday. “With regard to state contractors, overall, with the directive that has been issued by the governor, the majority leader questions whether or not any of them apply beyond the state employees that are overseen by the executive.”

Mary Pollock, government relations coordinator with the American Association of University Women of Michigan, said she thinks the directive “is quite clear.”

She said employer questions on past salary during interviews can be used to depress women’s wages.

“Many states and local governments have identified the practice of using past salary of applicants for establishing compensation of a new employee as potentially perpetuating the past sex-based wage discrimination of former employers,” Pollock said. “Employers need to pay their employees based on their value to the employer, not the sex of the employee.”

Barb Byrum

Bills to quash such salary questions prior to job offers have been introduced in the past three legislative session in Michigan. Each time, the legislation has never received a hearing, Pollock said.

“Instead, the GOP-led Legislature has passed bills pre-empting local governments from passing such legislation,” she said.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democratic former state representative who was banned from speaking on the House floor during a 2012 abortion debate known as “Vaginagate,” was succinct in her Twitter critique.

Chris Savage, chair of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party and founder of the progressive news site Eclectablog, called Shirkey’s comments “either wilfull ignorance or he’s lying.”

It’s “another statement by a Republican leader that diminishes what women are doing in power and i just find that to be really offensive,” Savage said. “This is part of the Republican, what I think is referred to as, ‘the war on women.’ Republicans will be held accountable for making these kinds of statements. I don’t think they get a pass on it anymore.”

And Julia Pulver, who lost her state Senate election to now-Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) in 2018, tweeted that the gender pay gap is “real & hurts thousands of MI women every day.”

Shirkey was elected to the state Senate in November 2014. He was a state representative from 2011 to 2015 during the time that Whitmer served as Senate minority leader.

A spokeswoman for Whitmer, Tiffany Brown, did not respond to an inquiry from the Advance regarding Shirkey’s statements. But Whitmer’s communications director, Zach Pohl, reacted to the news on Twitter.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.