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Bostonians of the Year

Pat Jehlen and Ellen Story: The champions of equal pay for women

For years, the state lawmakers pushed to close the gender wage gap. It finally paid off.

Boston, MA - 11/15/2016 - State Senator Pat Jehlen(L) and State Representative Ellen Story pose for a portrait at the Massachusetts State House in Boston, MA on November 15, 2016. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff) Topic: Reporter:

Keith Bedford/Globe staff

Patricia Jehlen (left) and Ellen Story fought for years to outlaw gender-based pay discrimination.

Never give up: It could be the anthem for women in 2016.

That mind-set kept longtime state legislators Patricia Jehlen and Ellen Story going in their quest to close the stubborn gender wage gap in Massachusetts. After two decades, the pair finally got their way in August, when Governor Charlie Baker signed groundbreaking legislation designed to reduce pay discrimination.

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“You keep at it. Every session you get a little closer,” says Story, a state representative from Amherst. “There is no excuse for it to take this long, but it did. Now you don’t dwell on the fact that it took so long. You celebrate the fact that it happened at all.”

State and federal law already protects female workers from pay inequities, but those safeguards only go so far. Disparities persist. In Massachusetts, women on average make 83 cents for every dollar a man earns, Census data show.

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A group of lunch ladies from Everett Public Schools demonstrated just how weak the state equal pay law was when they lost a heartbreaking case in 1998. These female employees filed a lawsuit against the school system, contending that their work was comparable to that of male custodians, who made twice as much. The women initially were awarded close to $1 million in back wages, only to lose on appeal in a case that spanned a decade and went twice to the Supreme Judicial Court.

In making its ruling, the high court cited the limits of the state’s statute. So a trio of Democratic lawmakers — Story, Jehlen (then a state representative from Somerville), and Alice Wolf (then a state representative from Cambridge) — got to work. They filed legislation to fix the law. Their bill never got very far, but Jehlen kept at it even as she became a state senator and Wolf retired in 2013.

This session, the remaining lawmakers decided to take a different tack. They noticed a perennial crop of bills aimed at closing the gender wage gap sponsored by various people. Why not combine efforts and craft comprehensive legislation? Along the way, Story and Jehlen picked up a critical cosponsor: state Senator Karen Spilka, who would become chairwoman of the Senate’s powerful Ways and Means Committee and help push the bill through. They also won the backing of state Representative Patricia Haddad, the House’s third-highest-ranking member.

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Beyond the Legislature, state Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office is responsible for enforcing labor laws, worked with business groups that feared the proposal would expose companies to more litigation. The solution: Write the bill so that employers, if they conduct salary reviews and make a good-faith effort to address disparities, won’t open themselves up to discrimination lawsuits.

In the end, the bill offers a novel approach to erasing biases and practices that prevent women from making as much money as men. For example, the law defines comparable work — so, similar jobs must have similar pay, regardless of title — to avoid repeating what happened to the cafeteria workers in Everett. Employers also won’t be able to require job candidates to disclose their salary history before an offer is made. This makes a difference, because women’s wages are historically lower than men’s and revealing previous pay could perpetuate lower salaries.

Despite its long and difficult journey, the legislation passed unanimously in both chambers, championed by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg. The law takes effect July 1, 2018.

Story, 75, retires in January after 24 years in the Legislature, but Jehlen, 73, carries on after winning a seventh term in the Senate. In her mind, the next frontier on wage equality is figuring out why jobs in fields dominated by women — from nursing home aides to day-care employees — pay so little. “We have a lot work to do,” Jehlen says. “We can do good things when we work together.”

 

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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