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This might be the year for a pay equity bill in Rhode Island

Governor McKee signed the minimum wage bill into law. Could pay equity finally be next? Advocates who were outraged by Mattiello’s stance in 2018 are hopeful for action by Shekarchi

Representative Susan R. Donovan, a Bristol Democrat who has co-sponsored the House bill on pay equity.Rhode Island House of Representatives

PROVIDENCE — Advocates say the drive for a pay equity law in Rhode Island ended in a “fiery ball” in 2018 when then-House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello unveiled an eviscerated version at the 11th hour that supporters viewed as a step backward, not forward, for women.

But now, advocates hope that a proposed Fair Pay Act is on the road to passage, as they negotiate with representatives of the business community at the encouragement of new House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi.

“This year seems like a good opportunity for Speaker Shekarchi to prove that things are different, and so far, it feels like that is what is happening,” said Georgia Hollister Isman, New England director for the Working Families Party. “Speaker Shekarchi has shown an interest in good and thoughtful conversations and negotiations – the opposite of the autocratic approach we saw in 2018.”


But, she cautioned, the bill hasn’t passed the House yet, though it has once again passed the Senate.

Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat who became speaker after Mattiello lost in November’s elections, noted that in years past he has was the No. 2 co-sponsor of the House bill introduced by Representative Susan R. Donovan, a Bristol Democrat.

“(Donovan) is meeting with the business community, and hopefully we can resolve any differences and move a bill similar to the one in Massachusetts,” Shekarchi told the Globe. “That is my hope. It is under strong consideration.”

The bill would update the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by, for example, preventing employers from paying women less than men for “comparable work,” rather than only for exactly the same work. It would prohibit employers from relying on salary history to set pay when hiring. And it would clarify when employers can pay an employee differently than someone else doing a similar job for reasons such as seniority or a merit system. In all, 17 states have similar laws, including Massachusetts, advocates say.


The legislation has drawn opposition from business groups.

“This bill, while well meaning, will hurt the Rhode Island economy,” Lenette C. Forry-Menard, lobbyist for the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, wrote to legislators. “At its most basic level, businesses will be placed in the horrible position of not knowing what jobs are deemed ‘comparable.’ "

Christopher Carlozzi, Rhode Island director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the bill would add to the cost of doing business in Rhode Island.

“These bills threaten to again add to the cost of doing business by micromanaging the operations of thousands of small businesses in Rhode Island during an already difficult time,” he wrote. “We need to find better ways to enforce the current laws and to ensure gender pay equity in the Ocean State.”

The state Department of Labor and Training has backed the bill, noting that, according to the National Women’s Law Center, women in Rhode Island earn about 85 cents for every $1 earned by a man.

“Women of color, specifically, earn even less,” DLT assistant director Angelika Pellegrino wrote. “This is unacceptable – particularly when looking at data from the early days of the pandemic and throughout the subsequent recession. We continuously see that women, specifically women of color, have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.”

According to the National Women’s Law Center, Black women earn 61 cents for every $1 earned by men, while Latinas earn 53 cents.


General Treasurer Seth Magaziner also is supporting the bill.

“It is estimated that Rhode Island’s poverty rate could be reduced more than 44 percent if working women earned the same wages as comparable men,” he wrote. “An increase in women’s earnings can boost Rhode Island’s overall GDP by 2.9 percent. Equal pay for women is the right thing to do and also contributes to economic growth. Rhode Islanders deserve nothing less.”

On March 2, the Senate voted 34-2 for the companion bill introduced by Senator Gayle L. Goldin. Republican Senators Jessica de la Cruz and Elaine J. Morgan voted against it.

Goldin, a Providence Democrat who has introduced a pay equity bill every year since 2015, said the proposal enjoys growing support in the General Assembly. She noted, for example, that this is the most diverse Assembly in state history, and the 38-member Senate for the first time includes as many women as men.

“This could be a defining moment for the new Speaker to show that he’s listening to his House members and the public, which would be in sharp contrast to the previous Speaker,” Goldin said. “I am optimistic that Speaker Shekarchi will do so.”

Senator Gayle L. Goldin, a Providence DemocratCourtesy of Gayle L. Goldin

Goldin rejected the argument that the bill would create confusion or hurt the economy, saying that it establishes a clear legal standard for “comparable” work and that the economy thrives when everyone is paid fairly.

“We need this bill now more than ever,” she said. “COVID had a disproportionate negative effect on women in the workforce when millions of women had to leave the workforce to care for children or elderly relatives.”


If a woman was out of the workforce for 14 months amid the pandemic, she shouldn’t be penalized with lower pay once they go back to work, Goldin said. Instead, women should be paid based on their qualifications and responsibilities, she said, noting the bill would bar employers from basing pay on salary histories.

Kelly Nevins, CEO of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, said the bill would provide employers with greater clarity about when they can pay employees at different levels, based on factors such as education levels, longevity, or the amount of travel involved in their jobs. “Right now, there is recognition that we need to do more to attract women and people of color back into the workplace,” she said.

Donovan said she was a victim of pay inequity 40 years ago when she was a girls’ field hockey coach at a regional public high school in New Hampshire and she found that she was being paid half of what the boys’ soccer coach was earning. “Forty years later, it still stings today,” she said. “It’s still a problem.”

Donovan said she doesn’t think Mattiello was ever convinced of the need for the bill.

“(Shekarchi) believes in pay equity for women and minorities, but he is very sensitive to the business community and wants to be fair to everyone,” she said. “If we do a good job negotiating, we will move this onto the House floor. I think this might be the year.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.