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No unity on bill to grant women equality in pay

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The Massachusetts State House.
The Massachusetts State House.

The war for equal pay for women has begun in Massachusetts, and everyone duck for cover. It's going to be a battle royale.

On Thursday, the Senate unanimously passed a bill that would expand on an existing law and aims to close the gender wage gap by ensuring equal pay for comparable work, establishing pay transparency, and requiring fairness in hiring practices. The bill now goes to the House, where it is likely to face more of a fight.

Already, battle lines are being drawn. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce came out Wednesday in favor of Senate bill 2107, and the fusillade came fast and furiously from other business groups in town that oppose it.

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Associated Industries of Massachusetts called the legislation "counterproductive" and said it feared that it would spur "unbridled litigation." The Massachusetts High Technology Council described it as "misguided in its approach, notwithstanding the noble intentions of its sponsors and supporters."

Noble? That's a term used in medieval times, and maybe that's the world the council lives in. I love how this group anoints itself an authority on closing the gender gap. This from an industry that is famously unfriendly to women. How soon we forget venture capital executive Ellen Pao and how she put the tech world's sexism on trial with her discrimination case against her employer.

The chamber and AIM typically march in lock step on issues, but new chamber CEO Jim Rooney is trying to shake things up. Everyone in town knows AIM doesn't like the pay equity legislation, but Rooney wasn't ready for business as usual.

"It is powerful for the business organizations to be aligned on something. I get that," Rooney said. "I am not going to wait for that."

Rooney himself liked the bill, but it's no longer just about Jim. He has to bring along some 1,500 members. To gauge opinion, the chamber conducted a survey in October and found that a little over half said the group should support the bill; about 35 percent wanted to propose amendments to make the bill more workable for businesses; and about 14 percent opposed the legislation, saying it was too burdensome.

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Rooney took the results as a sign that members wanted to close the wage gap for women, but on their own terms. He went to work with legislators and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office is the primary enforcer of civil rights and labor laws. Treasurer Deborah Goldberg is also supporting the legislation.

The chamber took issue with certain parts of the bill, such as what constitutes equal work and a requirement to report wage information by gender to the state. The latest version of the bill addresses those concerns by refining the definition of comparable work to ensure that similar jobs have more equitable pay, and encouraging rather than mandating salary reviews by gender.

"The chamber's support is a game changer," Healey told me, "and an important statement on why this law is the right thing to do."

Healey has also been working behind the scenes with AIM, and she's holding out hope the statewide employer group will come around. Last year, the two found themselves on opposite sides of the implementation of earned sick time, but after working together, they were able to reach a compromise.

AIM, which has 4,500 members, says it's ready to spar with the attorney general and others on the matter.

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"We agree with pay equity,'' said Chris Geehern, an executive vice president at AIM. "It's really in the technical and specific notion of the bill."

The group shot off a six-page memo to Senate members on Wednesday, objecting to some of the bill's provisions, such as prohibiting employers from asking a job candidate's salary history and increasing fines for pay equity violations from the current $100 to $1,000.

So how realistic is it that AIM and the AG can see eye to eye?

"There is a lot to do," Geehern said.

Like AIM, the Massachusetts High Technology Council is worried about the unintended consequences of the bill. Both groups also argue that state and federal laws already prohibit gender-based discrimination in pay and hiring, and another law isn't necessary.

Mark Gallagher, the council's executive vice president, said the legislation "feels good" but in reality it will just make it harder for companies to do business in Massachusetts.

Skeptics abound. Earlier this week, the speaker of the House, Bob DeLeo, said he believes in "equal pay for equal work," but as far as this legislation is concerned he needs to "take a look at the other provisions."

Similarly, Governor Charlie Baker took a wait-and-see approach. "The devil oftentimes is in the details on this stuff," he said.

This all sounds reasonable until you start looking at how far women have come, yet how little they still earn. Women in Massachusetts make up almost half the workforce, and 40 percent of households with young children have female breadwinners, according to the Equal Pay Coalition, a group formed to support the pay-equity bill.

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Yet women in Massachusetts on average earn just 82 cents for every dollar a man makes, according to the National Women's Law Center, an advocacy group. Put another way, female employees have to work about 60 extra days a year to make the same amount as male workers.

Karen Spilka, who cosponsored the Senate bill with Pat Jehlen, felt the state needed to strengthen its equal pay law, which was the first of its kind when it passed in 1945.

"It's time to clearly update the bill," said Spilka, an Ashland Democrat. For those who are uncomfortable about the bill's implications, she wants to make something very clear. "We're not asking women to be paid more than men. We are asking for women to be paid on an equal basis," said Spilka, chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

If her bill becomes law, will the wage gap be gone like that?

"It's going to take a while. It's one step," acknowledged Spilka. "We can't change the past, but we can change the future."

The bill would probably add another complexity to doing business in Massachusetts, but if we are to make meaningful progress in closing the gender pay gap, we have to try something new. The threat of more regulation may get companies to think more seriously about how to achieve pay equity.

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But doing nothing is no longer an option.


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