California Embraces a Radical Concept: Equal Pay for Women

Wednesday, September 02, 2015
State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson

While many states, including California, have laws aimed at giving women equal pay for equal work in the workplace, women still earn around 78% of what men make nationally. California is a little better at 84%.

State lawmakers sent legislation to Governor Jerry Brown this week that attempts to move the needle on pay disparity by expanding the meaning of equal work, increasing transparency, protecting workers who ask about equal pay and beefing up enforcement mechanisms. The governor has said he will sign it.

While some of the changes in California’s 1949 statute may seem nuanced, the bill’s author, Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), called it “the strongest equal pay law in the nation.”

Bryce Covert at ThinkProgress said he thought the most important change was no longer limiting pay comparisons to the precise same work. Instead, the work need only be “substantially similar.” In an example cited by Senator Jackson on her website, “A female housekeeper who cleans rooms in a hotel could challenge the higher wages being paid to a male janitor who cleans the lobby and banquet halls.”

The bill also permits comparing wages of employees with those at other sites. “For example, a female grocery store clerk who works at a store could challenge higher wages being made by male grocery store clerks at a store owned by the same employer just a few miles away.”

Despite the blue collar example cited by the senator, women with college degrees in Silicon Valley might be interested (pdf) in the legislation. Men with graduate degrees there make 73% more than their women peers and men with undergraduate degrees make 40% more. The bill forbids employers from interfering with employees sharing information about their wages or retaliating against them for evoking its protection.

The legislation requires an employer to justify a wage differential if it exists and provides five possible criteria: a seniority system, a merit system, a system based on productivity, experience/education, and “an overriding legitimate business purpose.” The inclusion of that last provision—some might say loophole—was said to be critical to winning support for the bill from the Chamber of Commerce.

The Assembly approved the legislation 76-2 and the Senate vote was unanimous on Monday.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Equal Pay Bill Heads to Governor’s Desk for Promised Signature (by John Myers, KQED)

New California Law Is a Big Step Forward for Working Women (by Bryce Covert, ThinkProgress)

California Lawmakers Approve Equal-Pay Measure (by Alejandro Lazo, Wall Street Journal)

Senate Bill 358

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