Candidates in the 11th Congressional District made bids for the crucial female vote Wednesday in taking opposite stances on equal pay legislation that has divided the parties.
Five local women joined Democrat Bill Foster in Romeoville for a round-table discussion on fair pay for women. The gathering comes on the heels of a GOP roadblock of an equal pay bill in the Senate on Tuesday. It's the second time in two years a partisan vote killed debate on the legislation.
Democrats want to increase the potential damages plaintiffs could receive in pay discrimination lawsuits, train women on how to negotiate salaries with employers and force employers to show that any differences in pay aren't based on gender.
Democrats say Republicans won't support the bill because they are beholden to big business special interests. But Republicans have said all the legislation would do is put more money in the pockets of lawyers and increase the cost of doing business while not curbing pay disparity.
At some point, the five women, all of whom support Foster, said they don't understand how his opponent, Republican Judy Biggert, can be a woman and not support the legislation.
Asked for comment after the meeting, Biggert said in a written statement that she knows all too well what it's like to be slighted because of her gender.
"When I was one of only three women in my law school class, I was told by a professor that I was taking the place of someone who belonged there -- a man," Biggert said. "That kind of treatment isn't easily forgotten, and it isn't just a sound bite for use in a political campaign."
Biggert said the Democratic legislation tries to impose unrealistic extensions of the deadlines to file a pay discrimination case on businesses.
"I have been fighting for equal opportunities for women my entire life, but the legislation Congressman Foster discussed today is a partisan payout to trial lawyers and special interests," she said.
Foster said he supports the legislation because it attacks the statistic that women still average only about 77 cents for every $1 a man makes doing comparable work. Foster voted for an earlier version of the legislation in 2009.
"It's one of the biggest problems in our economy today," Foster said. "It's not just a problem for women; it's a problem for families."
The women joining Foster said they have the same bills to pay as men. Single mothers especially can't afford to lose out on income they deserve, the group said.
Sue Burtnette of Woodridge said she began a career working for brokerage firms in 1968 and soon learned that a man doing the same job she filled made far more money despite having far less experience.
"It blew me away," Burtnette said. "At the time I was a single mother. It was, financially, very difficult. If I'd had that extra money, it wouldn't have been as hard."
Now nearing retirement age, Burtnette said she expects to work until she's at least 70. Part of the delay is because she missed out on money she would've been paid over the years if she'd been a man, she said.
"I worked my butt off in the industry," Burtnette said. "I'll never be in a position where I'll be financially comfortable."
Foster said just a 5 percent to 10 percent difference in an annual salary, carried over a lifetime of work, can mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars that could've been saved for retirement.
Not every company engages in pay discrimination, Foster said. But the ones that do are the reason equal pay legislation as proposed by Democrats is needed.
"People don't expect their lives to be easy and automatic," Foster said. "But if you work hard, you expect a fair deal."