On 7/1/2018, Massachusetts’ Act to Establish Pay Equity will come into effect. Frequently billed as the strongest wage equality law in the United States, most of the media coverage of the Act focuses on its rules about discussing salary histories. Under the law, employers cannot ask about a job candidate’s salary history until a job offer is extended. It also allows employees to share salary information without fear of punishment. The goal of this provision is to put all candidates and employees on equal footing in salary negotiations—regardless of race, religion, disability, national origin, or gender.
However, the salary history provision is only one part in the Massachusetts law. The law’s requirement of equal pay for comparable work is equally important—and was one of its initial goals.
The History of the Pay Equity Act
Massachusetts has had equal pay legislation since 1945. However, most courts interpreted these laws narrowly, only requiring equal pay for almost identical work. This interpretation permitted employers to pay different wages to men and women doing similar (but technically different) jobs. Unscrupulous employers could avoid paying equal wages by making small changes to job duties and titles.
In 1989, a group of 41 female cafeteria workers sued the Everett Public Schools, alleging unequal pay. The cafeteria workers, who engaged in heavy lifting and the sanitization of kitchens, were paid significantly less than male janitors. The case was litigated for nine years. Eventually, the Superior Judicial Court denied the women’s claims, finding that “comparable work” should be narrowly defined to jobs that were very similar.
Beginning in 1998, a group of legislators and activists worked to change Massachusetts’ law to require equal pay for truly comparable work. Governor Charlie Baker finally signed the Pay Equity Act in 2016. One of the Everett cafeteria workers was present at the signing.
What Is Comparable Work?
The Pay Equity Act requires employers to pay equal pay for comparable work. It defines “comparable work” as “work that is substantially similar in that it requires… similar skill, effort and responsibility and is performed under similar working conditions.” A finding of comparability cannot be limited to a review of job titles or job descriptions. Under the new Act, it is likely that the Everett cafeteria workers would have been entitled to equal pay.
Additionally, the Pay Equity Act prevents an employer from reducing a worker’s seniority due to Family Medical Leave Act time off (including time off for pregnancy and caregiving duties).
Why Is Equal Pay For Comparable Work Important?
57% of American women are in the workforce. Today, more women earn college degrees than men. However, statistics show that women are regularly paid less than their male counterparts. The Massachusetts law, along with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and recent state laws in New York and California are an important recognition of the value of all American’s work.
Many Americans are familiar with the concept of equal pay for equal work. The media has publicized high profile claims by female professional athletes (most recently the U.S. Women’s national soccer team) who have fought for equal compensation. However, the average American woman still earns $0.79 to a male worker’s $1.00. This number is even lower for some women of color.
This inconsistency is multi-factorial. Women are more likely to work part-time. They are also more likely to be the targets of caregiver discrimination and subtle gender bias. Some employers assume that women are more likely to be distracted by family obligations, leading to a decrease in promotions and job responsibilities. These stereotypes have also led to an increased push for paid leave and other legal protections for mothers, fathers, and other caregivers.
The Massachusetts law is a significant strengthening in equal pay protections and may cause a ripple effect through other states. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have already enacted laws prohibiting pay secrecy. Reframing salary discussions may increase pay equity. Giving workers the legal right to equal pay for comparable is another important tool.
It is also worth noting that equal pay laws protect all Americans, not just women. If a man believes he is receiving unequal pay for comparable work, he may also have a legal claim. As Dorothy Simonelli, one of the Everett cafeteria workers commented, ““I have 10 grandchildren – five boys, five girls,” Simonelli said. “This is for them and all the future women in the workplace. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
Authored by Leigh Ebrom, LegalMatch Legal Writer