African American black woman in city smile happy faceWhile Congress is out on recess for the foreseeable future, state legislators in Massachusetts hauled themselves into work this weekend for a rare Saturday session to unanimously pass a trailblazing equal pay bill, which also had the support of major business groups. Clearly Massachusetts gets that closing the gender wage gap is an urgent matter—women and the families that depend on their paychecks are losing thousands of dollars each year to the gap.

Massachusetts has been on top of its game for a while—70 years ago it enacted the first equal pay law in the nation, 17 years before the federal Equal Pay Act was signed into law. But over the years, it’s become clear that the protections offered by Massachusetts’ law have not been adequate. Women in Massachusetts still make only 82 cents on the dollar compared to their male co-workers. And when we look specifically at women of color compared to white men in Massachusetts, it’s even worse — Asian American women make 80 cents on the dollar; African American women make 61 cents; and Latinas make only 50 cents.

Massachusetts’ new equal pay bill strengthens Massachusetts law in several key ways, including:

  • Providing employers with a much-needed definition of “comparable work” entitled to equal pay.
  • Preventing employers from firing employees for discussing their compensation with co-workers.
  • Banning employers from asking for a candidate’s salary history during the hiring process.

The salary history provision is what makes Massachusetts’ equal pay bill a real trailblazer. When an employer relies on a job candidate’s prior salary in hiring or in setting pay, any pay disparity or discrimination from past employment is replicated and perpetuated throughout a woman’s career. For example, if a woman candidate’s prior employer discriminated against her in setting her pay, or she worked in a female-dominated profession where pay is lower precisely because women do the jobs and “women’s work” is devalued, and the new employer sets her pay based on that prior job’s salary, the pay discrimination that candidate faced in her previous job will follow her. And job candidates who reduced their hours in their prior job, or left their prior job for several years, to care for children or other family members are penalized when employers set compensation based on prior salaries.

Massachusetts gets that employers should pay employees for their new job, not their old one. While several states have proposed enacting this important protection, Massachusetts is the first to succeed. And it did so with whopping bipartisan support and business approval. Massachusetts’ actions send a clear message to all states and to Congress that strengthening equal pay laws is common sense and urgently needed.
Bravo Massachusetts!

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