By Lydia DePillis
Sometimes, state-based legislative change seems to be an incremental thing, with bills trickling through state houses across the country so slowly that a casual observer wouldn’t notice — which is often what backers of such campaigns would prefer.
And then there’s the supernova approach. That’s what a coalition of progressive and women’s empowerment groups are trying this week around the issue of equal pay, advancing bills in nearly half the states at once — from Alaska to Kansas — in a bid to elevate solutions to America’s nagging gender pay disparity at a time when little seems likely to happen in Congress.
“We decided that because legislators have been asking for it, let’s try to make a coordinated effort around this to try to nationalize the issue,” said Nick Rathod, director of the State Innovation Exchange, a three-year-old network of progressive state legislators.
On the menu of policy ideas that a state legislature might decide to take on, equal pay is relatively low-hanging fruit. It polls well — most people say they want everybody to receive the same compensation for similar work — and there are several options for how to address it, from simply increasing penalties for violations of existing laws to requiring minimum salaries on job postings, so that women and people of color can’t be lowballed.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk. The biggest challenge, lawmakers say, is getting their colleagues to agree that the gender pay gap is still a problem, more than 50 years after Congress passed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which banned discrimination on the basis of sex. Despite that and many similar state laws, women often aren’t even aware they’re being paid less than men for similar work, much less willing to go through the hassle of a lawsuit— as many people realized when the Sony e-mail hack revealed that actress Jennifer Lawrence was paid much less than her male co-stars.
“Part of the issue with current equal pay law is that it was enough to get the brashest discrimination addressed, but it’s not enough of a deterrent to get companies to get their house in order to begin with,” says Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women, which has made equal pay laws its number one priority. “Right now it’s cheaper to take the lawsuits.”
That’s why several states have been moving further in recent years. The effort started with Minnesota, which passed a law in 2014 requiring state contractors to ensure that their employees receive equal pay not just for holding the exact same job, but also jobs of “comparable worth,” such as janitors and housekeepers, or parole officers and child protective services workers. Last year, California followed up with a law extending that requirement to all private sector employers.
Out of the 24 or so bills that are being introduced across the country this week, some have been tried in previous sessions, and others are breaking new ground. They also offer a range of tools, ranging from conservative — simply boosting protections for people who discuss salaries at the workplace — to more aggressive. A bill in Massachusetts, for example, would prohibit recruiters from asking prospective hires their salary histories, so that being underpaid early in one’s career doesn’t permanently impair one’s earnings potential.
At the same time, that measure also grants companies an affirmative defense in court if they have already implemented a credible policy aimed at eradicating gender-based pay disparities. “Often, when these bills are proposed, there’s an accusation that it’s just to generate litigation,” says the Massachusetts bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jay Livingstone, a Democrat. “If a company undertakes a real review, and fixes the problem, there won’t be anything to sue over.”
Perhaps for that reason, the Boston Chamber of Commerce came out in strong support of the bill, calling it a “thoughtful collaboration” between lawmakers, business leaders, and the attorney general’s office. “Wage inequality not only affects businesses, it also has a negative impact on families and the overall Massachusetts economy,” said Chamber president James Rooney, in a statement issued Wednesday.
Business support isn’t always so vocal. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — which passed in 2009 — as well as the Paycheck Fairness Act, a more comprehensive measure that hasn’t yet passed. But conservatives and business interests don’t have to be opposed, either. The American Legislative Exchange Council, the State Innovation Exchange’s much older counterpart on the right, says it doesn’t have a set policy on equal pay laws like it does on things like environmental regulations and the minimum wage.
That’s why Oklahoma Rep. Jason Dunnington (D) thinks his bill has a chance, even in a state that’s as red as can be — with a legislature that’s as male dominated as any. In trying to build support among his male colleagues, he says he tries to make a personal appeal.
“Each of them has a mother or a daughter or an aunt or a grandmother or a niece,” Cunnington says. “Do those women in their life not deserve the opportunity for wage equality? That kind of hits them where it matters.”
Bills are also being offered in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Washington, Vermont, Virginia, Utah, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Nebraska, Missouri, Maryland, Louisiana, Kansas, iowa, Hawaii, Colorado, Arizona, and Alaska.
Now, there’s not much academic research on the impact of equal pay laws. Other research suggests that the gender pay gap has narrowed over the years for other reasons, including rising female education rates and greater female workforce participation. And some scholars have suggested that what’s really necessary to close the rest of the gap is changes in the structure of jobs to make taking time off to have kids — the last remaining insurmountable gender difference — less of a disadvantage.
But the AAUW, and other groups coordinating this week’s blitz of legislation, think government tools are still necessary to raise women’s pay to what it should be — even more so than priorities like paid parental leave, which many are also pursuing.
“When you have that kind of equality and economic stability, so many other doors open up, in terms of consumer clout, even political clout,” Maatz says. “When you can really get to that equal pay element, you really start to level the field.”