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State’s pay equity bill enters home stretch

Governor Charlie Baker.
Governor Charlie Baker. MICHAEL DWYER/AP/FILE 2016

The Massachusetts Senate Thursday largely acquiesced to a House pay equity proposal that granted several key concessions to business groups that initially opposed the measure.

The joint bill, set to be voted on Saturday, is designed to close the pay gap in Massachusetts by holding employers accountable for wage violations proven to have arisen from gender discrimination. Once approved, it goes to Governor Charlie Baker, who has not yet indicated whether he will sign it.

“Is it a heavy-handed bill? It isn’t,” said Senator Dan Wolf, a supporter of the compromise measure. “We’re dealing with generations of inequity. We’re trying to accelerate the process of closing the gap, but we want to do it in a way that’s not really harmful, especially for companies that aren’t aware that they’re doing it.”

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Associated Industries of Massachusetts, one of the state’s largest business groups, opposed an earlier Senate version of the bill that the group claimed would have left businesses overly vulnerable to lawsuits from employees.

The new bill protects employers from being held liable for a pay discrimination claim if they’ve undertaken a “self-evaluation” of gender wage disparities within the past three years and can demonstrate “reasonable progress” toward closing the gap.

An earlier Senate version called for an outside evaluator to conduct the examination. Wolf said the wording of the current version is vague, and something “we’re really going to have to keep an eye on moving forward.”

Forcing companies to study their pay practices removes the “opportunity for plausible deniability,” said Katie Donovan, founder of Equal Pay Negotiations.

That shift, along with looser language on what “comparable work” means — including the ability to pay higher-performing workers more, regardless of gender — won over the Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

“It addresses the issue of pay equity, which we all care about, and at the same time it recognizes the many factors that go into determining how much an individual makes,” said Christopher Geehern, a spokesman for business group.

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House Speaker Robert DeLeo had said passing a pay equity bill was a top priority before the legislative session wraps up July 31. In a statement, he praised legislators “who raised their voices and tenaciously pursued this issue for decades.”

The Senate did insist on language prohibiting employers from asking applicants about their salary history. Advocates of stricter pay equity legislation say that can disproportionately affect female job candidates because women’s salaries have historically been lower than men’s.

Under the bill, unless an applicant voluntarily discloses his or her salary history, an employer may only ask after making a salary offer.

In Massachusetts, women working full time make 82 cents for every $1 men make, earning $11,152 less each year on average, according to a study by the National Partnership for Women & Families.

The Massachusetts High Technology Council, another large business group that opposed all earlier versions of the bill, also opposes the compromise bill, a spokesman said.

If the bill becomes law, there will be a couple of indicators as to whether it’s working, Wolf said.

“The litmus test is two things,” he said. “Does it offer good protection for the prospective employee? And, over time, is it going to accelerate the closing of the equity gap?”

If Baker doesn’t sign the bill, Senator Karen Spilka, a supporter, said it will take much longer to correct pay inequities, which have lingered since Massachusetts passed the nation’s first prohibition against gender-based pay discrimination in 1945.

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“If we don’t pass this, and we keep the old way of doing business, and if everything continues to move as slowly as it’s been moving over these last 70 years, my great-great-great-granddaughter would maybe then get equal pay,” Spilka said. “That’s unacceptable.”


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