California lawmakers pass Fair Pay Act in win for equal pay protections

Bipartisan bill sails through as state assembly votes 66-2 in favor of law that will require employers prove specifics when paying men and women different wages

US Money equal pay
California’s labor laws are among the most progressive in the country. On 1 January, the minimum wage will increase to $10 statewide. Photograph: Stephen Jaffe/EPA

California lawmakers have passed a fair pay act, aiming to end the wage gaps that exist between men and women for the same jobs across the state.

The legislation passed by the state assembly on Thursday by a vote of 66 to 2. It will require employers to prove specific skill sets or seniority when paying men and women differently and is meant as a tool for women to use to sue in circumstances where they don’t get equal pay. It also adds protections for women who speak up and discuss pay scales with their colleagues.

“It is a positive first step to helping give women the ability to try and determine an equal future when they enter the job force or take a new position,” said Salima Houston, who works with an international recruiting agency in California’s Silicon Valley where she assists in identifying potential new hires for the world’s largest tech companies. “It hopefully will make the HR world smoother when offering salaries, at least that is the hope.”

The California senate passed bill SB 358 unanimously in May. It will now go back to the senate for concurrence, a formality, and Governor Jerry Brown is expected to sign the legislation into law.

California’s labor laws are among the most progressive in the country. On 1 January, the minimum wage will increase to $10 statewide, making it the highest in the country. Cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland have already increased their minimum wage and have tied it to inflation. On top of that, all California employees are entitled to one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked.

Democratic Santa Barbara state senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, the author of the bill, said that the goal of the legislation is to bring an end to the loopholes that have continued to see women paid less than their male counterparts for the same work. “There are no excuses anymore, and this bill will help bring an end to the reasons and loopholes companies may be giving to pay women less.”

The bipartisan bill sailed through the senate with Republican and Democrat support and was an easy sell among assembly legislators after months of wrangling over pay gaps across the state. In Silicon Valley, pay issues have brought much criticism and controversy over the past year as wages continue to be a concern among women.

The US Census Bureau puts the median salary in the heart of Silicon Valley, Santa Clara County, at $91,000. This figure, however, drops to around $56,000 for women. A NerdWallet study of pay in the country revealed that between 2007 and 2012, men’s salaries rose 27% while women’s income saw only a 2% increase.

Despite the intentions of the law criticism from groups such as the Anita Borg Institute in Palo Alto and Equal Rights Advocates, is that the bill does not require employers to share salary information with women to allow them to compare salaries with men in the same office. Even when asked, employers aren’t required by the law to divulge that data.

“Being able to get that data would be a more significant step than just being able to ask,” Telle Whitney, CEO of the Palo Alto-based Anita Borg Institute that supports women in technology, told the San Jose Mercury News. “I think this is a baby step.”

Houston agreed, saying that men are told that asking for a raise is normal and appropriate, but when women go to their boss to ask for a raise they are often seen as overbearing. “This is something the bill didn’t address. It doesn’t give women more than a fighting chance when it comes down to it so while we are all hopeful that this will be a good effort, unless women can challenge and win cases over pay inequality, it could become meaningless.”

Houston said that, at the very least, “this will help get rid of some of the secrecy that we have seen creep into the workplace, especially among tech companies who are apprehensive about giving information on salaries to their employees.”

Despite the concerns, legislators are hopeful that the legislation will tackle the growing pay gaps that exist across California. Equal Rights Advocates report that a woman in the state earns 84 cents to the dollar a man earns. For Latino women, it is about 44 cents to the dollar. Black women earn only 64 cents to the dollar a man is paid.

Legal Director at Equal Rights Advocates Jennifer Reisch hopes the bill will give women the impetus to fight for their rights, adding that in 2013, the rights group found only six women had filed wage claims in the state over pay.

“There are very few women who actually know how much they make compared to men doing similar work,” she said.