In 2017, Wyoming made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
“Bad news, Wyoming women,” began the Jan. 2017 article in Forbes. “Your state has the worst gender pay gap out of all 50.”
The story, to anyone who’d been in Wyoming for any amount of time, was old news: Wyoming has had a long-standing reputation for paying women less than men. The state Legislature first took the initiative to study the issue in 2003 after another article — with similar findings — noted the state’s disproportionate pay scales.
More than a decade after first acknowledging the problem, the Wyoming Legislature might be taking action on the issue, following the release of the latest, most accurate report on the issue conducted in Wyoming to date. The report shows women across the state — on average — earn just 68 percent of what men make.
Women in Wyoming have consistently been paid less than men, with the gap between both men and women widening over the past several years. In 2014, women earned just 69 cents for every dollar a man made in Wyoming; in 2017, that rate had fallen to 64 cents per dollar.
In the winter of 2017, Gov. Matt Mead signed legislation to conduct a study on the issue sponsored by two women lawmakers — Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, and Rep. Marti Halverson, R-Etna — who were on opposite sides of a debate over why women have consistently earned less than men. Halverson believed the disparity was largely attributable to career choice and the high wages of the male-dominated energy industry, while Connolly, a professor of gender studies at the University of Wyoming, argued the state’s persistent pay gap is a result of discrimination.
On Thursday, that study was released to the public, confirming in indisputable terms what the nation has known for years: Women in Wyoming make less money — proportionally — than anywhere else in the nation. In the most comprehensive review of state data to date, the 78-page report shows that no matter which way you slice the issue — whether by industry, level of education, age or location — women were consistently paid at lower rates than their male counterparts.
“We really haven’t gotten better over the last 15 years we have paid attention to it,” said Connolly. “What it does is it looks at industry, occupation, educational attainment firm size… and across all those variables, you see the wage gap, over and over again. We have to do something about it. We can, we should, we must. If we’re going to make the argument we want to be a forward-looking state, we don’t want that phrase ‘Wyoming: Worst for women’ coming out in Forbes again.”
The 2003 report — conducted by the University of Wyoming — found several factors, including time spent at work, differences in education, certain industries dominated by one gender over another and family were the primary reasons for the wage gap.
Many of the results seen then were replicated in this latest report, the first review of its type conducted by the state. Generated by the state Department of Workforce Services, the report draws on myriad data, using its own records as well as those from the state Department of Health, various state licensing boards, the US Census Bureau, the state Community College Commission, the Department of Education and the State Auditor’s office to paint the most accurate picture of the state’s 272,385-person workforce ever made. Among its key findings:
While certain demographic differences were attributable to understanding more than half of the wage gap, approximately 13 cents of the wage gap could not be attributed to anything in particular, according to research from the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.
Studies conducted in other states, Connolly said, typically only found 5 cents unaccountable, showing, according to Connolly, that much of the pay disparity in Wyoming is based on plain old discrimination.
“It’s sobering — it’s honestly sobering,” Connolly said. “When they talk about the desegregation of the wage gap and they could identify half of it, but not the other half, what they didn’t say is that elsewhere in the nation, only about a nickel is unexplained — we have three times that. That’s where you see discrimination, that’s where you see underpayment and undervaluing… that’s greatly disappointing.”
The full report can be found here.
The gender pay gap has been a persistent problem nationally as well. According to Pew Research data from April, women last year earned 82 percent of what men made on average. But that gap is considerably more narrow than Wyoming’s. Women in the Equality State have earned anywhere between 60 percent and 68 percent of their male counterparts depending on the year.
At the state level, lawmakers have tried legislation to address the problem where they can, from increased penalties for violating equal pay laws — like those in states such as Connecticut, Oregon and New Jersey — prohibiting retaliation for discussing pay with coworkers, like 12 states have already done, or measures like prohibiting employers from asking applicants their prior pay history or reducing exemptions from equal pay laws, like Illinois and Nebraska does. In its report, the Department of Workforce Services outlined several solutions for solving the pay gap problem, suggesting similar types of legislation, introducing training for women to negotiate better salaries and offering pay equity training and certification for employers. The report also suggests a number of voluntary employer changes as well, including sharing pay ranges for the position with applicants or sharing how pay is calculated with employees.
In the coming months, Connolly and Halverson, who is a member of the Labor Committee, are expected to sponsor a number of bills to address the issue, which are expected to be introduced at the committee level before the start of session this winter.
“We’re committed to it, now we have the evidence, and now it’s time to go to work,” said Connolly.
Sweetwater County Commissioner Wally Johnson grew up in Rock Springs. He knows every wilderness study area in his county, from the unearthly red and dust-colored rock formations in Adobe Town to empty desert landscapes where elk seek refuge during hunting season.
These areas of protected federal land are scattered across Wyoming, adding up to some 700,000 acres in 13 counties, from Big Horn County in the north to Sweetwater in the south. The Wilderness Study designation has imposed strict rules on parcels of the Wyoming landscape in order to maintain the unique wildness or remoteness that characterizes them.
But, for Johnson, not all of that land needs to be shielded, nor was it intended to be. There are other uses that matter in Sweetwater County, like oil and gas development, he said.
That’s why the Sweetwater County Commission voted 3-to-2 to support Rep. Liz Cheney’s recent bill to remove all wilderness study area designations in Sweetwater County. The measure would do the same in Lincoln and Big Horn counties. It also would restrict future designations of wilderness areas.
“For over 40 years, federal land in Wyoming has languished in WSA status,” Cheney noted in a Sept. 27 statement. “The bill I introduced today will finally address this long-standing issue and provide citizens and local officials in Big Horn, Lincoln and Sweetwater counties more authority to determine how best to manage the federal land within their counties.”
The bill may have little life in it given the late hour and its lack of sponsors, but it’s encouraged those with a long-standing gripe against wilderness study areas. At the same time, it’s sparked opposition from critics who bristle at a top-down endorsement of potential oil and gas drilling in Sweetwater’s Red Desert.
A coalition of counties, led by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, have been working to find a middle ground on wilderness study areas, launching the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative in 2015 to that end. The coalition has often struggled to find consensus. Wyofile reported in March that Cheney’s interest in the issue had interrupted the process, while factional disagreements and the defection of certain counties, like Sweetwater, had also held up progress.
Despite its challenges, the county initiative is a public process, said Shaleas Harrison, who opposes Cheney’s bill and is a member of the Initiative’s Carbon County group.
“You can’t just point blank write such extreme legislation that is only in the interest of a couple of groups: the motorized users and industry,” she said.
Cooperative management is difficult and it takes time, she said.
Harrison is the BLM Wild Lands Community Organizer for the Wyoming Wilderness Association. She doubts that the Cheney bill will gain traction given the upcoming election, the approaching end of session and problems with the bill itself — which would conflict with other federal laws, she said.
But it’s still concerning. Wilderness study areas only make up about 3 percent of Wyoming’s public land, she said. The idea that these small areas will stimulate the economy or improve the job picture are “illogical,” she said.
For Harrison, the current push to open up more and more areas for drilling is a bad trend.
“Once industry have tapped into every place and compromised all the wild lands,” she said. “What’s left?”
Cheney’s bill has its list of supporters. In some wilderness study areas, people who ride snowmobiles and off-road vehicles support lifting the designation. Groups like Sweetwater Snowpokes Snowmobile and ATV Club and the Wyoming Mining Association put out statements of support, as did the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association and the affected county commissions.
Some who oppose the wilderness area designation point to its history, arguing that the federal agencies weren’t supposed to hold these tracts of land indefinitely.
In 1991, the BLM released a report suggesting some of the designated areas should be returned to multiple-use, but that never happened.
While areas like Adobe Town may have unique characteristics that should be protected, others could be managed for multiple use like other federal lands, they argue.
The Petroleum Association of Wyoming, which has endorsed Cheney for re-election, said in a statement that the designations place “needless” restrictions on both industry and recreation. The bill could open up “a much-needed revenue source” for the state, the association noted.
A request for comment from the Petroleum Association on these areas’ potential for oil and gas development was deferred to the state experts at the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. A spokeswoman for the commission deferred comment to the association.
Johnson, the Sweetwater County commissioner, said he knows the issue is controversial. His support of Cheney and opposition to the wilderness study areas could get him kicked off the commission when he’s up for re-election, he said.
“If I’m wrong, I’ll be voted out,” he said. “But I was elected to do what I think is right.”
Some of the wilderness study areas could be protected at a later date, but the designations needed to go, he said.
“We need to be able to drill where there is potential for development,” he said. “We can’t build a fence around the state of Wyoming.”
Others say there are areas that should be, in a sense, fenced off.
Aaron Bannon of the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander said the school uses the wilderness study areas of the Red Desert precisely because they are one of the few areas where development can’t occur and where few people venture.
“There are a lot of desert rats around that I think place a high value on this place,” he said. “People go to the desert to heal. It’s because of what it is, how it helps you face yourself, I guess, that makes it worth taking a stand for.”
WASHINGTON — Picking up the pieces after a contentious nomination battle, the Senate’s majority leader said Sunday that the chamber won’t be irreparably damaged by the wrenching debate over sexual misconduct that has swirled around new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
While Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Kavanaugh’s confirmation was a shining moment for the GOP heading into next month’s pivotal elections, GOP Gov. John Kasich of Ohio predicted “a good year” for Democrats and said he wonders about “the soul of our country” in the long term after the tumultuous hearings.
McConnell, in two news show interviews, tried to distinguish between President Donald Trump’s nomination of Kavanaugh this year and his own decision not to have the GOP-run Senate consider President Barack Obama’s high court nominee, Merrick Garland, in 2016. McConnell called the current partisan divide a “low point,” but he blamed Democrats.
“The Senate’s not broken,” said McConnell. “We didn’t attack Merrick Garland’s background and try to destroy him.” He asserted that “we simply followed the tradition of America.”
The climactic 50-48 roll call vote Saturday on Kavanaugh was the closest vote to confirm a justice since 1881. It capped a fight that seized the national conversation after claims emerged that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted women three decades ago. Kavanaugh emphatically denied the allegations.
The accusations transformed the clash from a routine struggle over judicial ideology into an angry jumble of questions about victims’ rights and personal attacks on nominees.
Ultimately, every Democrat voted against Kavanaugh except for Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Kavanaugh was sworn in Saturday evening in a private ceremony as protesters chanted outside the court building.
McConnell said the confirmation fight had energized Republican voters and he praised GOP senators, who he said had “stood up to the mob” in favor of the “presumption of innocence.”
He signaled that a Republican-controlled Senate would act on a fresh Trump nominee to the Supreme Court in 2020 — a presidential election year — should a vacancy arise. The court’s two oldest justices are Democratic appointees: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85 and Stephen Breyer is 80.
“We’ll see if there is a vacancy in 2020,” McConnell said.
Two years ago, McConnell blocked a vote on Garland, citing what he said was a tradition of not filling vacancies in a presidential election year. But when asked again Sunday about it, he sought to clarify that a Senate case in 1880 suggested inaction on a nominee only when the chamber was controlled by the party opposing the president.
Republicans currently hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate, with several seats up for grabs in November.
Trump has now put his stamp on the court with his second justice in as many years. Yet Kavanaugh is joining under a cloud.
Accusations from several women remain under scrutiny, and House Democrats have pledged further investigation if they win the majority in November. Outside groups are culling an unusually long paper trail from his previous government and political work, with the National Archives and Records Administration expected to release a cache of millions of documents later this month.
Still, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said he believed it would be premature for Democrats to talk about re-investigating Kavanaugh or a possible impeachment if the party takes control of the chamber in November, stressing a need to help heal the country.
“Frankly, we are just less than a month away from an election,” Coons said. “Folks who feel very strongly one way or the other about the issues in front of us should get out and vote and participate.”
McConnell spoke on “Fox News Sunday” and CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Kasich appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union,” and Coons was on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”