New Jersey judge tosses out wage equity case

(The Center Square) — A New Jersey judge has tossed out a lawsuit accusing Gov. Phil Murphy of gender and racial discrimination for approving raises for state correctional officers.

The lawsuit filed in October by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 63 alleged a bill signed by Murphy last year giving 8% pay raises to correctional officers — and not other state workers — was “discriminatory” because it would widen the state’s racial and gender gap.

But Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy rejected the union’s claims in the lawsuit, calling AFSCME’s legal arguments “fundamentally and irredeemably flawed.”

Lougy said he found no “convincing evidence” the pay increase was discriminatory and pointed out the state Legislature has brought discretion to approve the use of taxpayer dollars.

“Within its constitutional bounds, the Legislature is free to do what it wants,” he wrote in the ruling. “It can adopt inconsistent policies. It can appropriate funds on behalf of one interest group and not on behalf of another. That is the nature of lawmaking.”

Murphy signed a bill last year raising the salaries of correctional police officers in response to the pandemic and staffing shortages, but didn’t include pay raises for the estimated 6,000 AFSCME who work in other state departments and agencies who also toiled on the job during the pandemic.

Union officials alleged that was discriminatory because a majority of the correctional officers are white, while other state workers are predominantly women and minorities.

In the lawsuit, the union argued the raises would widen racial and gender pay gaps in state government, citing data showing the average state worker making a salary between $40,000 and $40,999, while correctional police officers get between $70,000 and $90,000 a year.

New Jersey’s correctional officers are 82% male, with the largest group among them being white males at 43%, according to the lawsuit. AFSCME’s membership is 67% female and 82% minority, with black females making up the largest group at 47%, the union noted.

Lawyers for the union argued that AFSCME members who work for state agencies dealing with military and veterans affairs, psychiatric and developmental also stayed on the job during the COVID-19 pandemic, working under similar conditions to correctional officers.

“The AFSCME members appeared for work and endured, among other things, staffing shortages, mandatory overtime and hazards created by the COVID-19 pandemic, while ensuring the safety, security and well-being for all involved in a professional manner,” they wrote.

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