Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, right, is congratulated by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, after her measure to close the gender wage gap in California, was approved by the Assembly, Thursday, in Sacramento. The bill, AB1017, bars employers from using previous salary information as justification for paying women less then their male co-workers, now goes to the governor. RICH PEDRONCELLI, AP

California could soon boast one of the nation’s toughest laws aimed at closing the salary gap between men and women.

State lawmakers gave final approval this week to the California Fair Pay Act, which says women must be paid the same as their male colleagues for “substantially similar work.” It leaves limited exceptions, such as rewarding more extensive training, education or experience.

Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign the bill into law.

“It’s not only the strongest state law in the country. It’s stronger than federal law,” said Noreen Farrell, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, a women’s rights organization that lobbied for the bill.

The legislation, which applies to all businesses, beefs up California’s existing anti-discrimination law by requiring employers show that a pay difference between male and female workers is based on a legitimate factor, such as seniority or a merit-based system.
Simply having different titles isn’t a defense under the bill. A hotel housekeeper, for instance, could challenge higher wages paid to male janitors, who do substantially the same work, noted Farrell.

The Fair Pay Act, SB358, also prohibits retaliation against workers who discuss colleagues’ wages. It doesn’t require employers to disclose wages.

Supporters say women often fail to challenge pay gaps because they don’t know they exist. Farrell said many of the women who call her organization’s hotline say they are too scared to discuss their colleagues’ pay with their bosses.

In addition, the legislation closes a loophole in existing law by allowing people who work for employers with multiple locations to challenge their pay based on the wages of workers at other sites.

Farrell’s organization isn’t typically on the same side as the business community, but in this case it was. The bill had the support not just of labor groups but also the California Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber dropped its initial opposition after getting additional clarity on the exceptions under which an employer may provide differential pay.

“We are hopeful that SB358 will limit litigation as it provides an objective criteria for employers at the outset to determine the pay base for employees and make sure those are not determined based on gender,” Chamber policy advocate Jennifer Barrera said in a recent statement.

The legislation wasn’t particularly contentious among lawmakers, either. The California Assembly passed the legislation 76-2 on Aug. 27. State senators unanimously approved the bill on Monday. Orange County’s entire legislative delegation voted for the bill.

Only one major organization opposed the bill: California National Organization for Women. Though the group advocates for pay equality, it opposed the legislation because it did not include specific protections against wage discrimination based on race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

The law’s author, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, cited studies that found California women earned 84 cents to every dollar men earned.

Nationally, women make 78 cents on every dollar men make. Women of color fare worse, with Latino and black women earning 54 percent and 64 percent of white men’s earnings, according to the American Association of University Women.

California has prohibited gender-based wage discrimination since 1949. However, the state provisions have been used rarely due to language that makes it difficult to establish a successful claim, the legislation says.

Under the bill, employees can sue for wage discrimination or retaliation in civil court. Or they can file complaints with the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. The state agency would keep workers’ names confidential during the investigation, the bill says. The office would supervise the payment of wages and interest due to employees of a company that violates the law.

The Orange County Register
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