Safed’s Female City Engineer Sues Municipality Over Wage Discrimination

The city denies gender discrimination but the engineer says she was paid less than the permitted minimum

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File photo: Safed's City Hall.
File photo: Safed's City Hall.Credit: Dror Artzi

Safed’s female city engineer is suing the municipality for wage discrimination, claiming that, in violation of an express directive from city’s director general, the city paid her thousands of shekels less a month than five male colleagues of the same rank.

Heli Tal, who has served in the position for four years, is suing the municipality for 464,000 shekels ($130,000) in Nazareth Labor Court for alleged salary disparities and discrimination under the Equal Pay Law. For its part, the municipality said Tal is not being discriminated against and that the municipality is committed to encouraging the employment of women in key positions.

Tal, who is being represented by the Women’s International Zionist Organization, began working as city engineer in 2014, when her pay was set at 70 percent of the salary of what municipal directors general get, even though the Safed director general’s circular stated explicitly that compensation for such senior positions must be at least 85 percent of his own. The same circular also states that the salary must be increased as the employee gains experience in the position to a maximum of 95 percent of the director general’s salary. According to Tal, her employer never apprised her of these requirements.

The Safed Municipality said it would study the suit and respond in court, but added that it encourages the hiring of suitable women to key positions. “The proof is that [Tal] was appointed city engineer. The salary of senior Safed municipality officials is not determined by gender, but is subject to the approval of the city council and the Interior Ministry. We view the plaintiff’s claims as not to the point and not reflecting the organizational culture of the Safed municipality, which promotes equal opportunity. The engineer is not suffering wage discrimination compared to her male or female colleagues. We will continue to recruit women based on their professional qualifications, as we always have.”

On the other hand, the lawsuit alleges that Tal, the plaintiff, was successful at her job and was shocked to discover that she was being paid less than what she claims is the minimum permitted to the city. “It was clear to the plaintiff that her work and skills are not inferior to those of her colleagues and therefore she suspected that the defendant’s motives for discriminating against her in her salary were not at all relevant and stem simply from her being a woman,” the suit alleges.

WIZO said Tal’s situation is indicative of widespread discrimination against women in the Israeli labor market. “Every day we hear claims that women are ‘just whining’ and that those who make the effort negotiate properly and work the same hours as men and get paid just like men,” said Ori Turkia-Shelas, the lawyer who directs WIZO Israel’s legal aid office. “The reality is completely different.”

On average in Israel, as of last year, the wage disparity in between men and women was 32 percent and the gap only widens among those with higher education or who are self-employed, Turkia-Shelas said. “Most women reconcile themselves to this situation, sometimes because they don’t know their rights or what other people get paid at their workplace, and sometimes because they fear taking legal action.”

At the end of 2016, after two-and-a-half years as city engineer of the northern Israeli municipality, Tal said she happened to see the Interior Ministry circular and found that she was receiving a significantly lower salary than she deserved. She said she approached the city’s human resources department but did not get a response.

She then emailed city director general Roni Ben-Abu and Mayor Ilan Shohat, asking them to raise her salary. Ben-Abu wrote to Tal that he had obtained the city treasurer’s approval to raise her salary and that the municipality had informed the Interior Ministry, which presented three options for temporary action until the change was approved. But according to the lawsuit, no action was taken to increase her salary.

And while her salary remained the same, two other senior municipal employees – the city manager and the director of the municipal education department – allegedly got raises. When city council member Vicky Elkabetz asked why the salaries of all senior municipal officials had not been revised, the mayor purportedly responded that every senior official would get a raise when the time came, “if he deserves it.”

At that point, Tal is said to have threatened to sue. “Then, with surprising speed, a request was made to the Interior Ministry to increase her salary to 80 percent of senior officials’ salaries,” but the city did not address the financial losses she incurred previously and even after the raise, her salary was still lower than the salary stipulated in the director general’s circular, the lawsuit alleges.