Congress Lags, but One State Takes the Lead in Addressing Gender Pay Gap
Pay inequality got a spotlight earlier in the year when actor Patricia Arquette rallied against it at a Hollywood awards show, so it may come as no surprise that California is taking the lead in attempting to narrow the gap for female workers in the state.
A new bill, which Gov. Jerry Brown plans to sign into law, ensures that men and women who perform “substantially similar” work—a composite of skill, effort, and responsibility—for the same company are entitled to equal pay, regardless of their job title or geographic location.
Fatima Goss Graves, senior vice president for program at the National Women’s Law Center, sees it as a step in the right direction. “This law to me says, ‘We’re really serious about finally addressing the problem of pay discrimination,’ ” says Graves, whose organization has long advocated for passage of the federal Paycheck Fairness Act, which has repeatedly failed to pass the Republican-controlled Congress since being introduced in the Senate in 2010. “It’s a really common-sense idea—that having more transparency makes the rights stronger, makes it easier for civil-rights agencies to do their job.”
The California bill also aims to protect workers who openly discuss their pay from potential retaliation by their employers. While workers are safeguarded by an existing state law and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the consequences for employers violating the law range from a notice to an investigation into whether back pay is due. The California bill, which would be monitored by the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, would strengthen the punishments for employers who are in violation, authorizing employees to recover lost wages and work benefits through a civil action reinstatement.
The bill passed the California State Senate unanimously in September. The California Chamber of Commerce initially opposed the bill but later voiced support following tweaks that clarified the situation in which employers would be required to pay compensation: when an employee proves that her duties were nearly identical to that of a male coworker, but the pay was different.
Lily Ledbetter made such a discovery nearly two decades into her career at Goodyear, when an anonymous coworker tipped her off that her male counterparts were making much more money for the same amount of work. Her Supreme Court gender discrimination lawsuit became a rallying cry for feminists and inspired the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill President Obama signed into law after taking office in 2009. In spite of the measure, the wage gap between male and female workers in the U.S. persists.
Last year it narrowed to its lowest point on record, according to census data released last week, but the 1 percent bump in women’s salaries compared with men’s—now 78.6 percent—is hardly significant in the broader picture. The numbers shows that there hasn’t been any major change in the gender wage gap since 2007, when women made 77.8 percent of what men made.
The gap is statistically much wider for women of color and Latinas, who are paid an average of 64 percent and 56 percent, respectively, of what their male counterparts are paid, according to the National Women’s Law Center. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that in the United States overall, the gap between men’s and women’s pay won’t close until 2058.
Nancy McFadden, an executive secretary at the California governor’s office, announced on Twitter on Women’s Equality Day—Aug. 26—that Brown will sign the bill when it reaches his desk. He has until Oct. 11 to do so.
UPDATED Oct. 6, 2015—1:00 p.m.
Brown signed the bill into law during a ceremony on Tuesday at the Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park in Richmond, California. "Sixty-six years after the passage of the California Equal Pay Act, many women still earn less money than men doing the same or similar work," he said. "This bill is another step toward closing the persistent wage gap between men and women." Maria Shriver, Geena Davis, Dianne Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi were among the advocates that issued statements applauding the decision.