Where Equal Pay Flourished (and Failed) in 2016
This year we saw lots of progress in statehouses across the country when it came to advancing AAUW’s public policy priorities. In particular, we helped get exciting new equal pay legislation off the ground and focused attention on the issue.
The year started out with a bang: 24 states introduced bills to address the gender pay gap during the last week of January. By the time most legislative sessions concluded, 36 states and the District of Columbia had introduced an equal pay bill (or bills in some instances) in their legislatures. While not all of these bills passed, this growing activity shows that state legislators in red, blue, and purple states realize that the pay gap is real and that something needs to be done about it.
Six States Passed Important Equal Pay Legislation
During the 2016 legislative session, six states — California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Utah — passed bills to address gender pay inequality. These bills employ a wide range of tactics to attempt to close the gap.
The Maryland and Massachusetts bills contain a number of similar and important provisions, including clarifying the defenses that employers can legally use to justify pay disparities. But each bill adds a unique and unprecedented provision. In Maryland, employers cannot provide less favorable employment opportunities based on sex or gender. That means no “mommy tracking.” In Massachusetts, employers who want to do the right thing and address the gender pay gap head on are given safe harbor: An employer who conducts a voluntary self-evaluation and can demonstrate that they are working to correct discriminatory pay structures has an affirmative defense against a discrimination claim.
In Delaware, legislators passed a provision that protects employees who discuss or disclose their wages. The Maryland and Massachusetts bills also include this type of language. Several states passed similar provisions last year, and we expect this trend to continue.
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The California and Massachusetts bills work to stop employers from using a current or prospective employee’s salary history to determine current wages. Specifically, the Massachusetts bill includes a provision banning employers from using salary history when screening and hiring workers. Last year, when California passed its outstanding equal pay bill, the state also passed its own version of a bill banning salary history similar to the Massachusetts provision. Unfortunately, it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D). This year, California tried again to pass the bill, with updated language and further input from businesses. Thanks to some amazing work by AAUW of California and other activists, the new bill was signed into law by the governor. In this version, if an employer uses discriminatory pay practices, an employee’s salary history cannot be used to justify said discrimination.
Nebraska’s bill adds crucial protections for employees of small businesses. Previously, the state’s equal pay protections only applied to employers with 15 or more workers. The law now applies to employers with two or more workers.
Utah’s legislation helps employees who have been discriminated against collect additional compensation for discrimination.
Watch for These States’ Gender Pay Gap Bills in 2017
Seven states came close to passing equal pay bills this year but didn’t go the full distance. They now have momentum, and we’ll keep our eyes on these statehouses in 2017.
New Jersey and California both came tantalizingly close to passing new laws that were ultimately vetoed by their governors. The comprehensive New Jersey bill vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie (R) would have clarified the defenses that employers can use to justify pay disparities, increased the amount of back pay a wronged employee could obtain, and protected wage transparency. While California did succeed in passing some good legislation this year, that did not stop Gov. Brown from vetoing a related bill that would have required employers with state contracts to comply with anti-discrimination regulations.
AAUW’s State Policy Program won a silver award at the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) 2016 Power of A Awards. The Power of A Awards are the highest industry recognition that an association’s program can receive from ASAE.
In Oklahoma, both chambers voted to pass a bill that would have increased fines on employers who discriminated in pay. However, policy makers were unable to reconcile two different versions of the legislation before the session ended. Washington also failed to get its bill across the finish line before the 2016 session concluded. Like the Oklahoma bill, it would have increased employer fines for discrimination, but it also would have prohibited “mommy tracking” and limitations on discussing and disclosing wages.
Colorado’s bill to extend pay transparency protections passed the state House but failed in the Senate. Hawaii considered a bill that would have clarified the defenses that employers can use to justify pay disparities, banned the use of salary history to set pay, and prohibited employers from limiting employees’ discussions of wages. While the bill passed the state Senate, legislators failed to secure a hearing for it in a House committee.
Finally, AAUW members in Louisiana have long toiled to pass an equal pay bill, and every year they get closer to achieving that goal. In 2016, the Louisiana Senate passed a bill that would have expanded existing provisions to cover more employees and increased damages. Unfortunately, the bill died in the House.
While we would have loved to celebrate equal pay victories in every state, we’re glad to see that legislators are taking this issue seriously and are poised for more progress. We anticipate even more successes in 2017, led by the hard work of AAUW advocates across the country.
Until a federal law is passed, states will continue operating under piecemeal laws to combat unequal pay.
Read about bills pertaining to STEM education, campus sexual assault, student debt, voting rights, reproductive rights, and more.
Back up your advocacy with the latest research by reading about how the gender pay gap affects different people in different ways.