Mass. House takes up ‘equal pay’ measure

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BOSTON — A bill that aims to close the so-called wage gap by increasing transparency and establishing guidelines for courts adjudicating claims of wage discrimination could become law this summer.

The bill (HB 1733), currently being reviewed by the Massachusetts House Committee on Ways and Means, would outlaw employer policies that ban employees from sharing compensation information. The Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed a similar measure in January (SB 2107).

Massachusetts outlawed pay discrimination in 1945, making it the first state in the nation to do so. Federal law has required equal pay for equal work for more than 50 years.

Although raw statistics suggest that, overall, women still make only a fraction of the money earned by men, childless women earn  8 percent more than male counterparts with similar levels of experience – $1.08 to every $1 paid to men.

Some advocates claim that, on average, Bay State women earn only 82 cents for every $1 paid to male workers, although they don’t claim significant statistical pay disparities for jobs that are actually the same.

The Senate version of the measure bans employers from punishing workers for disclosing their wages to colleagues. But it also requires employers to pay male and female employees the same amount for jobs that are “substantially similar” and prohibits employers from subtracting time spent on maternity leave from wage calculations based on seniority.

Business groups have been critical of the Senate version. But a recent report in Politico indicates that many of these groups find the House version more palatable.

Rick Lord, president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, told Politico that his team has been closely working with House leadership as well as the attorney general’s office “to hopefully come up with a bill out of the House that we would support.”

Like the Senate bill, the House version of the pay equity legislation seeks greater transparency by banning employers from imposing wage-related gag orders on employees. But it also addresses the procedures courts adjudicating such claims must follow.

Under the House bill, an employer charged with wage discrimination must demonstrate that it has implemented “a job evaluation plan” that is “free of any gender bias” and “allow[s] for the comparison of all jobs.”

The bill does not, however, define “gender bias” or otherwise explain what a biased evaluation system looks like, and it is unclear whether the law would allow employers to defend charges of discrimination simply by providing legitimate reasons for the wages in question. Ordinarily, in employment discrimination cases employers are given an opportunity to defend themselves by proffering “legitimate non-discriminatory reasons” for the action in question.

The House language explicitly states that an employer may not offer as a defense the fact that the employee agreed to her rate of compensation.

The full House is expected to take up the measure on Thursday.