Legislation will be the strongest pay equity statute in the nation
(BOSTON) – This past weekend, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a measure to help close the gender wage gap. The bill, sponsored by Senator Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville), prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in the payment of wages for comparable work unless the variation is based upon an approved mitigating factor, such as seniority or merit.
Notably, the bill prevents employers from requesting salary history in hiring, a measure designed to end the self-perpetuating cycle of wage disparity. Massachusetts would be the first state in the nation to adopt such a provision. However, prospective employees would not be barred from voluntarily disclosing their past salaries.
“This is a historic milestone for the millions of working women in our state who, for generations, have cared for themselves and their families with lower wages than they both needed and deserved,” said Senator Jehlen. “I am so happy for my granddaughters, who will enter a much fairer workforce and won’t have to battle the same gender wage gap that has held back women’s salaries for too long.”
Senator Jehlen has cosponsored a version of the legislation since 1998, with inspiration for the original bill coming from a group of female cafeteria workers at Everett Public Schools. The employees sued the school district in 1991 after learning they were paid half as much as male janitors at the schools. The cafeteria workers won at the trial court, but the Supreme Judicial Court overturned the decision, ruling that the state’s equal pay law did not clearly define comparable work.
The Equal Pay Coalition, founded by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, the Women’s Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Organization for Women and consisting of more than 40 member organizations provided strong support for the bill. The bill also received overwhelming backing from the business community, including support from the Alliance for Business Leadership and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, among others.
As a result of the 1991 Everett cafeteria workers’ suit, the bill includes a definition of “comparable work” while still maintaining flexibility for performance-based compensation. The bill incentivizes companies to correct compensation disparities internally before going to court by creating three-year affirmative defense from liability. Within that time period employers must complete a self-evaluation of their pay practices and demonstrate reasonable progress in eliminating pay disparities. The bill also prohibits an employer from preventing employees from talking about their salaries.
“This bill finally recognizes that pay inequity is a problem,” said Senator Jehlen. “It doesn’t solve the problem, but it removes many barriers which we know have kept women from achieving equity.”
It will now go to the Governor for his consideration.