You now have the legal right in Washington to talk about wages with coworkers and to ask your boss why you’re paid differently than coworkers or haven’t gotten that promotion you deserve. Washington’s Equal Pay and Opportunity Act comes into effect today, guaranteeing this freedom of speech in every workplace.
The law also provides penalties for any company that retaliates against workers who exercise their rights and provides new tools for people who face gender discrimination.
These new rights are important. Earlier laws made it too easy for employers to get away with discriminatory practices.
It’s been illegal to pay women less than men for similar work in Washington State since 1943 and across the U.S. since 1963. Nevertheless, women continue to be paid less than men in nearly every occupation. The most recent detailed occupational data for full-time U.S. workers from 2016 found near wage parity in only a handful of mostly smaller occupations, including message therapists, medical record technicians, and phlebotomists. Among dishwashers and fast-food prep and service workers, women make about 98 percent of men’s pay, but both only bring home about $20,000 a year for full-time work.
Men receive significantly more pay in every occupation that employs more than half a million women nationwide except social work (a field that’s 81 percent female), where women make 99.2 percent of men’s pay. The gender wage gap is 87 percent for secretaries and administrative assistants, 91 percent for registered nurses, 94 percent for elementary school teachers, 73 percent for retail supervisors, and 67 percent for retail salespersons. Women represent only 18 percent of software developers and 11 percent of aerospace engineers, fields in which median wages for men are over $100,000 annually but for women are about $90,000 (87 percent and 88 percent of men’s pay, respectively).
Overall, women in Washington typically make $13,000 less per year than men for full-time work. That helps explain why 37 percent of single-mom families and 17.5 percent of all Washington kids live in poverty.
Persistent racial discrimination compounds the pay gap for women of color, and further limits opportunities for their children and families. In 2016 among fulltime workers in Washington, Asian women made 82.5 percent of white men’s earnings, white women 76 percent, Black women 62 percent, and Latina women 48 percent.
The wage gap follows women into retirement as well, with less Social Security and other retirement income.
Sexual harassment, cultural assumptions of supervisors, and inadequate societal support for caregiving – along with outright discrimination – contribute to continued occupational segregation and lower wages for women. The lack of good enforcement options also has allowed deliberate discrimination and biased assumptions to go unchecked. Until now, people have had to sue their employer and prove intent to discriminate. With our new law in Washington, people now have the option to file a complaint with the Department of Labor and Industries.
With either a filed complaint or a lawsuit, the ball is now in the employer’s court to prove that they had a bona fide business reason unrelated to gender or earnings in a previous job for pay and career advancement differences.
Several other new rights will also promote greater workplace equity, family economic security, and community prosperity across Washington. A quartet of laws concerning sexual harassment also become effective this week, protecting victims, ending employer-imposed gag orders, and establishing a process for model workplace policies.
Most workers statewide now have the right to earn – and use – paid sick and safe leave, so they won’t lose a paycheck when they need a few days away from the job to keep themselves or their families healthy. Starting in 2020, all employees and small business owners across the state will have paid family and medical leave benefits to cover extended leaves to care for a new child or seriously ill family member, their own serious illness, or deal with a family member’s military deployment.
New rights under the Equal Pay and Opportunity Act won’t end employment disparities overnight, but greater transparency in wages and career opportunities should help push both workplace practices and culture towards more equitable outcomes.