Business

Shirley Leung

Pay equity bill a long time coming, but may soon be here

State Senator Pat Jehlen first cosponsored a version of the equal pay bill in 1998.

Globe Staff/File 2013

State Senator Pat Jehlen first cosponsored a version of the equal pay bill in 1998.

A state equal pay bill took a key step forward Tuesday, bringing a legislative effort almost two decades in the making within striking distance of victory.

The legislation, which would strengthen the 1945 statute that prohibits gender-based wage discrimination, emerged from a House committee in a form that should assuage many employers worried about the impact of new regulations.

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The biggest hurdle had been Associated Industries of Massachusetts, but the trade group’s initial war of words faded fast with some modest changes and a lot of handholding from House leader Patricia Haddad and Attorney General Maura Healey. AIM is now expected to back the bill, joining the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Alliance for Business Leadership, which earlier broke corporate ranks to champion the bill. Click here to read that story.

With support from major business organizations, the equal pay measure is expected to win approval in the House on Thursday. If there was any doubt, this is what Speaker Bob DeLeo told me: “I feel confident that the votes will be there.”

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Once differences are worked out with the Senate, it will be up to Governor Charlie Baker to sign into law policies that will help close the persistent wage gap that means Massachusetts women on average make only 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. The law will promote salary transparency, restrict prospective employers from asking candidates upfront about salary history, and encourage companies to conduct reviews to detect pay disparities.

Baker, being Baker, won’t show his hand until the bill lands on his desk, but it’s hard to imagine the Republican getting on the wrong side of history on pay equity.

“I did not think it would take this long,” said Senator Pat Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat who has cosponsored a version of the bill since 1998 with Representative Ellen Story, an Amherst Democrat. “It seemed obvious.”

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Story recalls how previous iterations of her pay equity bill elicited this reaction: “ ‘Oh, Ellen, yes, it would be nice.’ ”

It was treated as a pie-in-the-sky notion, but after filing the same bill year after year, Story thought it was time to try something different.

The inspiration for the original bill came after a group of female cafeteria workers sued the Everett Public Schools in 1991 in what was the first legal test of the state’s pay equity law. The women argued that they were doing comparable work as the male janitors in the schools, such as cleaning and lifting heavy objects, but were paid half as much. The women won, but ultimately the Supreme Judicial Court overturned the verdict, arguing that the state equal pay law was not clear in its definition of comparable work.

Jehlen and Story set out to fix that and were rebuffed repeatedly, but they found a new way to build support in 2014. Story saw there were up to a dozen bills with similar goals of closing the gender wage gap. Instead of everyone doing their own thing, she corralled others to work together to produce a comprehensive pay equity bill.

Mass NOW and the Women’s Bar Association got behind the idea, and Senator Karen Spilka agreed to join as the bill’s lead cosponsor, which proved critical. A few months later in January 2015, Senate president Stan Rosenberg tapped the Ashland Democrat as his new chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, ensuring the bill would be a priority.

Supporting the legislation was a no-brainer for the Alliance for Business Leadership, the progressive business organization run by Jesse Mermell. But it would take some time to win over the more traditional Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, now led by Jim Rooney.

Rooney surveyed members last fall and found that many wanted to support the bill, but with some modifications. He then worked closely with the attorney general, whose office is the primary enforcer of civil rights and labor laws.

‘I did not think it would take this long. It seemed obvious.’

Senator Pat Jehlen, cosponsor of a version of the bill since 1998 
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The chamber came out in January of this year in support of the legislation, a day ahead of the Senate vote. The measure passed unanimously.

There are legitimate reasons why some women earn less: They take time off to raise kids, they choose jobs with flexible schedules over fatter paychecks. But there are also built-in biases that prevent women from making as much as money, which is what the legislation aims to address.

The pay equity bill establishes a definition for comparable work to ensure that similar jobs have similar pay, regardless of title, to avoid what happened to the cafeteria workers in Everett. Employers can’t require a candidate to disclose salary history before a job offer is made. Here’s why that matters: Because women’s wages are historically lower than men’s, revealing
previous pay may perpetuate lower salaries for female workers.

For Healey, one of the most powerful aspects of the bill is to give employers incentives to conduct salary reviews without fear they open themselves up to lawsuits if gender disparities are found.

“We established unprecedented legal protection for companies that take the effort to review their compensation and their compensation practices, and take steps to correct them,” said Healey. “That is really important.”

After the bill passed the Senate, Representative Haddad, one of DeLeo’s deputies, was dispatched to work with the AIM acting as a mediator between the business group and the attorney general’s office. In recent weeks, both sides edged closer to a bill all could get behind.

On Tuesday afternoon, the House Ways and Means Committee released the latest version of the bill, which incorporated many of the changes AIM wanted.

If the bill becomes law, women across the Commonwealth won’t wake up the next day with bigger paychecks, but they will get there a lot faster than under the status quo. Do nothing, and women won’t achieve equal pay until 2058.

A quarter century after standing up for equal pay, the lunch ladies in Everett can taste victory.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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