As news coverage this week made clear, enacting measures to achieve equal pay is a high priority for many in Congress. But it is also a high priority for lots of states. For example, recently enacted and pending state legislation would: end retaliation against workers for discussing their pay; strengthen state equal pay laws; and ensure that workers have sufficient time to bring pay discrimination cases.
Combating Punitive Pay Secrecy – A woman can go years being paid less than her male coworker across the hall for doing the same work and never even know it. This is no accident – many employers keep employees in the dark about what others are making through punitive pay secrecy policies that threaten punishment for discussing pay. Some states are combating this problem by prohibiting employers from preventing employee discussions about pay and retaliating against employees that do engage in such discussions. Last year alone, Louisiana (for state employees), New Jersey and Vermont joined the ranks of states offering this sort of protection to workers. And this year there are bills pending in the District of Columbia, Indiana, Louisiana (for all employees), Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania to do the same.
Closing Legal Loopholes – Employers often try to justify pay disparities between men and women doing the same jobs with reasons that are based on sex stereotypes or are totally unrelated to workers’ ability to perform their jobs. Some states are tackling this problem by making it clearer in their equal pay laws that employer explanations for pay disparities must not be masking discrimination and must be related to the needs of the job or business. This ensures that employers will be careful not to perpetuate discrimination in their pay setting practices, and employees will be able to hold employers accountable when unjustified inequalities still result. For example, last year Louisiana (for state employees), New Mexico and Vermont adopted laws to this effect, while Louisiana (for all employees), New York and Pennsylvania have similar bills pending in this legislative term.
Keeping the Courthouse Doors Open – Five years ago Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to ensure that the women who experience pay discrimination can pursue their legal rights even if they do not find out they are being paid less until years after the original discriminatory pay decision was made. But some state courts have refused to follow the Ledbetter Act when interpreting the time limits for pursuing pay discrimination claims that are brought under state laws. A number of legislatures have responded by passing state versions of the Ledbetter Act – with New Jersey and Ohio poised to join them this year. Unfortunately, however, this is also an area where some states are moving in the wrong direction, as several Governors have vetoed legislation to address this problem.
When it comes to finally achieving equal pay, it is clear that states have an important role to play. Many states have already stepped up to the plate and we hope many more will soon follow!