Mass. Senate passes pay equity act

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Massachusetts made strides toward gender equality as a bill aiming to close the pay gap between men and women was passed recently by the state Senate. Proponents of the new legislation said it would give a much-needed update to the state’s existing pay equity law by creating more transparency and fairness in the hiring process.

“Massachusetts was the first state to pass a pay equity law over 70 years ago, yet women in the Commonwealth still make only 82 cents for every dollar earned by a man,” said Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Ashland), a sponsor of the bill. “Women working hard to support their families deserve fair pay, and this bill is an important step to close this unacceptable gap and ensure equal pay for equal work.”

Sen. Pat Jehlen (D-Somerville), Spilka’s co-sponsor for the bill, went even further in expressing the bill’s far-reaching goals. “This issue isn’t just important to working women. It’s one of the most significant things we can do to close the achievement gap. As we raise women out of poverty, we raise children out of poverty,” she said.

Backed by a large coalition of legal and women’s rights groups, the Act to Establish Pay Equity was passed unanimously on Jan. 28. Included in the count was Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, who cast a rare vote for what he called a “critical piece of legislation.”

One key provision of the bill was the clarification of the term “comparable work” as work that is “substantially similar in content and requires substantially similar skill, effort and responsibility and is performed under similar working conditions.”

The vague characterization of “comparable work” under the current law leaves much to interpretation, which can prove troublesome in wage equity claims. Other major changes included barring employers from asking about salary history during the interview process and prohibiting employers from forbidding people to discuss their compensation with co-workers. Jehlen said the ability to speak freely about wages among colleagues “is a critical tool to inform an employee’s negotiations for better pay in the future.”

Nai Collymore-Henry, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts branch of the National Organization for Women (NOW), claimed that the new regulations would also go a long way toward closing the gap between white and minority citizens. “It will allow marginalized people to advocate for themselves through pay transparency provisions,” which “is important for black and brown folks who have historically been paid less,” she said.

Collymore-Henry pointed out that black women make just 66 cents on the dollar compared to white men and that Latina women make even less at 54 cents on the dollar. “In order to ensure proper pay equity, we need to bring all of our sisters to the table. And that is what this bill aims to do,” she said.

While the comprehensive act garnered wide support in the Senate and beyond, it met with opposition from some of the business community. Mark Gallagher from the Massachusetts High Technology Council called the bill “misguided in its approach” despite noble intentions, according to the State House News Service. He said the new measures would put companies at increased risk of frivolous lawsuits if they compensate employees based on performance, such as commissions.

However, Jehlen argued that the legislation would actually reduce lawsuits, as companies would be encouraged to self-evaluate their pay practices. The Act to Establish Pay Equity currently awaits approval or rejection by the State House of Representatives.

Reenat Sinay is a Boston-based freelance journalist and part-time correspondent for the Boston Globe.

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