Fight for equal pay becomes a symbol

Justice: A Canton woman meets President Clinton after her case is chosen by the White House as an example of the need for wage equity.

May 12, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

Sharon Long will tell you straightaway: She's just a simple woman who grew up in Southeast Baltimore, never wanting much more than a comfortable rowhouse, an unassuming life and a decent job.

"For most of my life," says Long, who will be 44 Sunday, "that's exactly what I had."

Until she got fired from her job after asking for a raise.

Until the lawsuit, the illness, the accident that left her husband unable to support her family and the suicide of the couple's only child.

Until she began being held up as a symbol by President Clinton, who recently called Sharon Long "heroic," her life an example for female workers across America.

Sharon Long was with the president again yesterday. The Canton resident was at the Rose Garden for a White House event marking Equal Pay Day, in recognition of the effort to ensure that women are paid equally with their male colleagues.

Clinton touted his proposal to promote equal pay for women, who studies show make about 25 percent less, on average, than men in similar jobs.

The $27 million initiative would pump more funding into wage discrimination enforcement, provide money for advertising campaigns on the issue and encourage employers to provide statistical information to the government on salaries.

As at a similar event in January when she introduced Clinton, Long was a special guest, seated just feet in front of the podium as the president spoke before a gallery of onlookers and members of Congress.

Long stood up during the presentation for a moment and gave a solo standing ovation, excited by what was being said.

"The president smiled at me then," Long says. "It feels like he knows me ... like he really cares about this struggle."

Trips to the White House and meetings with Clinton were the last thing on Long's mind in the summer of 1995, when she asked for a pay raise from R. E. Michel, a Glen Burnie heating and air conditioning firm.

Long, who had started at the company as a clerk and worked her way up to purchasing agent, says she was initially told her request would be accepted and her salary of $556 a week would be doubled. She says that would have given her the same pay as her male colleagues.

A few weeks later she was fired.

"I've never been so hurt in my life," says Long. "They might as well have taken a knife and stuck it in my gut. That job had become my whole identity."

Thus began a chaotic journey, one that Long describes as "nearly five years of living in hell."

Wracked by stress and depression, Long began suffering from a stomach ailment that left her hospitalized and near death.

"I was one step away," says Long. "The doctors told my husband I might not make it ... and I was begging them to kill me, it hurt so bad."

When Long eventually got better, she complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, hoping the agency set up to ensure worker equity would take up her case.

At first the EEOC told Long, a woman with smooth, pale skin and wire-framed glasses that give her a bookish look, that it wouldn't take the case. If she wanted to file charges against one of the region's biggest air conditioning companies, she would have to hire and pay for her own counsel.

Long didn't back down, pressing the agency to review her claims, writing letters to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and local politicians about her plight.

Finally, in 1996, the agency decided to take her case and soon after assigned one of its top lawyers.

Unexpected woman

"I admit, before I met Sharon, even I was guilty of stereotyping her," says the EEOC lawyer who took her case, Baltimore-based Debra Lawrence.

"I knew the heating and air conditioning field is one of the most male-dominated industries around, and I figured a woman who could have made her way in that environment would be a certain rough and tough way.

"But when you meet Sharon Long you meet a woman who is sweet and warm and charming. And underneath that she has amazing strength."

Long's case was one of the roughly 1,000 per year the EEOC has taken on nationwide since 1995 specifically dealing with women being paid less for doing the same job as male co-workers, according to Reginald Welch, the agency's director of communications.

The EEOC figures are just the "very tip of the iceberg compared to what's really happening out there," said Welch. "You've got to realize how tough it is for people to file suits. People think of the ramifications of just going into litigation, and they know it's going to be a long hard road."

It was during the course of preparing the case, through depositions and filings and legal wrangling, that Long would face her most difficult challenges.

In late 1997 her husband, Joseph Donald Long, was hit by a taxicab, an accident that injured his back. It left him unable to continue working as a truck driver and made Sharon, by then working for another air conditioning company, the only breadwinner.

Loss of a son

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