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California bill aims to close wage gap for women workers

Female employees would not face retaliation if they ask how much male colleagues are paid

LOS ANGELES — California women workers who suspect their male colleagues earn more money than they do for the same work could soon ask how much they make without fear of retribution.

The California Fair Pay Act or Senate Bill 358, touted as the strongest equal pay law in the nation, is expected to be signed into law soon by Gov. Jerry Brown, who tweeted his support and urged lawmakers to pass it. The California Chamber of Commerce dropped its initial opposition after wording changes and now supports the bill.

The bill ensures that men and women who perform “substantially similar” work receive equal pay, even if they have different titles or work in different offices for the same employer.

“Equal pay isn’t just the right thing for women, it’s the right thing for our economy and for California,” said State Democratic Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, the bill’s sponsor. “And it is long overdue. Families rely on women’s income more than ever before.”

The gender gap in salaries continues nationwide. Women who work full-time were typically paid 79 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts in 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released earlier this month.

In California, women workers earn 84 cents on the dollar but the inequality widens tremendously for women of color. Latinas make only 44 cents for every dollar a white man makes — the largest gap in the nation for Hispanic women workers. African-American women are paid 64 cents on the dollar.

“What’s important about this particular law is that it provides specific protection for inquiring about wages of other employees,” said Laura Riley, staff attorney with the California Women’s Law Center. “And it has an enforcement mechanism.”

The Division of Labor Standards Enforcement has the power to investigate complaints filed with the agency and request wages on the employees’ behalf. The worker’s name would be confidential.

“It really doesn’t allow companies much wiggle room,” said Ange-Marie Hancock, associate professor of gender studies and political science at the University of Southern California. “The burden has really shifted to the employer. The employer has to demonstrate and report that they are in fact paying people equally.”

California is a state of firsts and when the law is signed, Hancock predicts it will influence wage policies in other states and at the federal level.

California has been at the center of high-profile lawsuits alleging gender-based discrimination against tech giants, including Microsoft, Google and Twitter.

A gender discrimination lawsuit filed by Ellen Pao sparked a national discussion over wage disparity in the tech industry. A civil jury found that the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers did not discriminate against Pao, a one-time junior partner, because of her gender. Pao was pressured to resign as interim chief executive of popular website Reddit.

And the Sony hacking scandal unveiled evidence that women actresses are paid less than men in Hollywood. A former lawyer with the Directors Guild of America sued the union last month alleging she was paid less than her male counterparts.

The California Fair Pay Act “may have the impact of encouraging employers to examine whether there is in fact wage parity,” Riley said. “It empowers workers without fear of retaliation and discourages pay secrecy. … This has the potential of lowering the poverty rate for working women.”

Another bill on Brown’s desk would require employers to advertise a job’s minimum pay and would prohibit employers from asking about salary history unless the job applicant agrees in writing to share it. The measure introduced by Democratic Assemblymember Nora Campos would effectively bar employers from using previous salaries as justification for paying women less than men.

The wage gap costs the state and families $33.6 billion a year in lost income, Jackson said.

“That money could be flowing into families’ pocketbooks, into our businesses and our economy,” she said. “The time is now for women’s paychecks to finally reflect their hard work and true value.”


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