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R.I. House votes 72-0 for pay equity bill

Senate is expected to pass companion legislation in next couple of days

Representative Susan R. Donovan, a Bristol DemocratRhode Island House of Representatives

PROVIDENCE — In 2018, advocates of a pay equity all but booed, accusing then-House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello of gutting the proposed legislation at the last minute.

But on Tuesday, supportive legislators offered a standing ovation after the House voted 72-0 for a pay equity bill backed by new House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi.

The vote puts the bill on the fast track to become law, with the Senate expected to pass Senator Gayle L. Goldin’s companion legislation in the next couple of days.

The House bill, sponsored by Representative Susan R. Donovan, would update the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by preventing employers from paying women less than men for “substantially similar” work, rather than only for exactly the same work, and it would prohibit employers from relying on wage history to set pay when hiring.

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“Fixing wage disparities will put money directly in the hands of families who need it, and they’ll spend it in our local economy,” Donovan said. “This is an economic justice bill as well as a gender and a racial justice one.”

Donovan has 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 thanked Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, for “shepherding” the bill through “a really difficult negotiation and a final compromise” with representatives of the business community.

In a statement, Shekarchi said, “I predict this legislation will be a model for pay equity in the nation. Women deserve the same consideration their counterparts receive.”

In Rhode Island, women overall earn 84.8 cents for every dollar men earn, according to data from the National Women’s Law Center.

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Representative Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat who chairs the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, spoke in support of the bill.

She noted that according to the National Women’s Law Center, wage disparities disproportionately impact women of color: Black women in Rhode Island earn 60.9 cents and Latinas earn 52.6 cents for every dollar a white, non-Hispanic man earns. She called such disparities “unacceptable.”

“I am super excited to be here and vote for this,” Alzate said. “This is the tip of the iceberg. We are doing such great work. We need to continue to pass legislation that is for everybody.”

Representative Deborah Ruggiero, a Jamestown Democrat, thanked Shekarchi and Donovan for their work on the legislation.

Massachusetts passed a similar bill in August 2016, Ruggiero said. “So it’s taken us a while to get here, but we did,” she said. “This is a big day in Rhode Island.”

Georgia Hollister Isman, New England regional director of the Working Families Party, hailed the House vote.

“Now more than ever, women and people of color need to be paid what we’re worth,” she said. “In just a year, the average Rhode Island woman loses $9,000 dollars to the pay gap, and the gap widens even more for Black, Latina, and Indigenous women.”

Closing the pay gap is more urgent this year because so many women and people of color struggled during the pandemic, Hollister Isman said. “As record numbers of women and people of color return to the Rhode Island workforce, it’s more important than ever to make fundamental changes that put working families at the center of our recovery,” she said.

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The bill provides that, if an employer violates the law, employees may be eligible to collect back pay, unpaid wages, and damages. It allows a job applicant, employee, or former employee to seek relief from an employer’s unlawful pay practices at the Department of Labor and Training or in court.

The legislation requires more transparency from employers regarding wage ranges and protects applicants and employees from potentially damaging wage history information. It also protects “good employers” who are proactive and conduct a wage audit in order to fix any unlawful pay practices.

Donovan noted that the revised bill pushes the effective date back a year to Jan. 1, 2023, and delays fines for another two years. “It is our hope is that many businesses want to do the right thing, but that may take time,” she said.

In March, the Senate voted 34 to 2 for a companion bill introduced by Goldin, a Providence Democrat. But now that bill will be amended to reflect the revised House bill, and the Senate will vote on both the Donovan and Goldin bills.

Senate spokesman Greg Pare the pay equity bill has been among the Senate’s top priorities for several years, and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio mentioned it in his opening day remarks. “We are thrilled that it’s finally getting over the goal line,” he said.

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