Business & Tech

Equal pay bill takes another step toward passing

The latest effort by Massachusetts lawmakers to close the gender gap in pay forged enough middle ground to win over at least one opponent in the business world.

On Tuesday, leaders in the House of Representatives pushed legislation that would require companies to pay female employees the same as male employees who perform comparable work. The thrust of the bill is similar to legislation passed by the state Senate earlier this year, but differs in several key areas.

The Associated Industries of Massachusetts, one of the state’s largest business groups, said it supports the House bill because companies would have more leeway to defend against discrimination claims, if they can prove they tried to fix pay inequities. Moreover, AIM said the House’s definition of “comparable work” takes into account market factors when employers try to hire in-demand workers.

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“This is a bill, generally, that works with employers far more than earlier versions,” said Christopher Geehern, a spokesman for AIM, which had expressed concerns that the Senate’s pay-equity bill would leave employers vulnerable to wage discrimination lawsuits.

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While several other business groups have backed pay-equity legislation, the Massachusetts High Technology Council remains opposed to both versions.

“The council cannot support legislation that would create a presumption that any pay differential between employees of different genders is the result of discriminatory action by an employer” said Mark Gallagher, the council’s executive vice president, in a statement. “Such a presumption would impose unfair, unnecessary and significant new risks on Massachusetts employers acting in good faith and would damage the Commonwealth’s competitive environment.”

A key issue involves job candidates disclosing their salary histories to would-be employers. Advocates say forcing female candidates to disclose their salary histories could perpetuate inequities, because women’s salaries have historically been lower than men’s.

Both the House and Senate would essentially prevent hiring managers from requiring applicants to disclose their past salary history, or asking their former employers for that information, until the company has made a job offer.

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“This asks employers to, before interviewing people, already decide what they think this work is worth, not make it up as they go along,” said Sasha Goodfriend, copresident of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women.

However, the House version, like its counterpart in the Senate, does allow employees to discuss how much they make with one another.

The House bill also puts employers on the hook for an employee’s unpaid wages if a pay gap is the culprit, and prevents a company from making up the difference by cutting the pay of the higher-paid worker.

The proposal would protect a company from a wage discrimination claim if it can show that it previously undertook a “self-evaluation” and showed “reasonable progress” in closing a wage gap.

Though advocates have campaigned for years to close the wage gap, the issue has gained momentum in recent months — Hillary Clinton has made it a cornerstone of her presidential campaign.

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In Massachusetts, state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg launched an online calculator to highlight the gender pay gap, and the City of Boston has been gathering payroll demographic data by sex, race, job category, and length of employment

‘This is a bill, generally, that works with employers far more than earlier versions.’

In April, the National Partnership for Women & Families released a study that showed full-time working women in Massachusetts make 82 cents for every $1 men do, or $11,152 less on average each year.

Though career choices and leaving work to raise children explain some of the gap, most is attributed to gender bias, the partnership said.

The House bill is slated to be voted on Thursday.

With just a few weeks left in the Legislature’s session, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the pay equity bill is one of his top priorities.

“The time is now,” Goodfriend said.

“We’re right up to the end of the legislative session. It will be really impressive if they’re able to finish this in the few weeks we have left.”

Michael Bodley can be reached at michael.bodley@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @michael_bodley.