Wendie Dreves is putting Vermont's Equal Pay Act to the test. Her gender discrimination lawsuit will force a federal judge to interpret the state statute for the first time.
"We are just a little employee and a solo law firm fighting a multinational company with a multinational law firm," said James Franco, Dreves' lawyer.
That national company is Hudson News, a popular retailer found in airports across the country. Dreves used to manage the store at the Burlington International Airport until she was fired. She alleges Hudson News then paid a younger man with less experience more money to do the same job. Her starting salary was $34,356 in 2003 and $48,230 when she was fired in 2010. Her male replacement was paid $52,500.
"Vermont expanded the protection for women against wage discrimination more than a decade ago, and yet we've had to wait 10 years before there was a case actually brought to court," said Cheryl Hanna of the Vermont Law School.
Legal expert Hanna says this case hinges on Vermont's Equal Pay Act of 2002. It requires men and women to receive equal pay for equal work. Hudson News maintains it fired Dreves for poor job performance, not gender. The company says her male replacement was highly qualified and next in line for a promotion. Hudson's lawyers argued the company offered him a higher salary to uproot his New Hampshire family for the Burlington job.
Hanna explained, "So what Judge Sessions is really going to have to wrestle with in this case is did Hudson News have a legitimate business reason to pay the male more than they paid Ms. Dreves?"
Hanna says the federal judge was well versed in the history of gender discrimination. How he rules will set a precedent for future cases.
"This is a great opportunity to highlight the problem of pay disparity and the gender gap between men and women," said Cary Brown of the Vermont Commission on Women.
Nationally, women earn 77 cents for every dollar men make for doing the same job. In Vermont the gap is a bit smaller; women earn 84 percent of what men make.
"I hope this case lets people know that there is legal protection against unequal pay and this is a tool that's available for them to use if they experience pay inequity at work," Brown said.
The case is being heard in federal court, in part because Hudson News is an out-of-state vendor. But state law is being applied. It covers all Vermonters and provides for broader remedies for plaintiffs compared to the federal statute. Judge Williams Sessions is expected to rule on the case by this summer.