Just in time for International Women’s Day on March 8, the Washington State Legislature today passed an updated Equal Pay bill which will make it easier for women to identify cases of discrimination and hold companies more accountable for them. Both houses approved it with a bipartisan supermajority: 36-12 in the Senate, 70-28 in the House of Representatives.
Washington first outlawed gender-based wage discrimination in 1943, when women took on “men’s” jobs to help win World War II. That Equal Pay law required that employers pay all those Rosie the Riveters the same as men. Two decades after that, the US Congress banned employment discrimination nationally.
Yet all these years later, women are paid less than men in virtually every occupation, even when experience, training, hours of work, and other relevant factors are taken into account. Women of color face the largest wage gap of all, often contending with both racial and gender biases.
The lack of equal pay for equal work is only part of the problem. Women – especially women of color – also have a harder time getting a job. Once hired, women are often offered a lower starting wage, tracked into lower-pay departments, and passed over for promotions. For example, in grocery stores, women get assigned to the deli and men to meat and produce, departments that start with similar pay but reach much higher wages in the long run. In restaurants, men tend to get the more lucrative bar-tending and fine-dining jobs. A study of Fortune 500 company supervisors found that many offered men promotions because they assumed the women would have more work and family conflict.
In addition, many employers have policies that ban employees from discussing their wages with each other, retaliating against women who want to know how their pay compares.
Washington’s updated Equal Pay law ends employer pay secrecy policies, so people will more easily discover pay disparities. It also requires employers to provide job-related reasons unrelated to gender for differences in pay and job opportunities, and protects all workers’ rights to inquire why they are being paid differently or offered less career advancement.
Finally, it provides enforcement teeth, allowing the state to investigate complaints so that workers aren’t forced to face suing their employers. And it changes the burden of proof – instead of workers having to prove their employer intended to discriminate on the basis of gender, the employer will have to prove it had legitimate reasons for differences in pay and career opportunities.
Even with popular support and bipartisan appeal, it’s taken four years for the Equal Pay update to make it all the way through the legislative process. The Democratically-controlled House passed a bill in each of the last three sessions with bipartisan majorities, but those bills quickly died in the Republican-controlled Senate Commerce and Labor committee. This year, with the legislature – and all its committees – entirely in Democratic hands, many expected the bill to move quickly. But corporate lobbyists, who had already won a number of changes in the bill over the years, demanded additional concessions. The most crippling toward future progress would have been a permanent ban on city or county laws against gender discrimination.
Fortunately, the law as passed preserves the rights of women and others to fight for their own rights in their own communities.
Washington’s new Equal Pay law won’t solve the wage gap overnight, but it’s an important step in the right direction, empowering all workers with new ability to advocate for themselves at work.
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