The path to equality has incrementally moved forward in the history of the United States. The Massachusetts Pay Equity Act represents another step in that direction.
This new bill would encourage employers to pay their workers fairly by industry standards, prevent employers from asking about a potential employee’s salary history during a job interview, prohibit the firing of employees on grounds of discussing or comparing their salaries and requires employers to notify their workers about their rights. It also defines 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” instead of just by title or job description.
This legislation would strengthen laws already in place such as the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act, the Federal Equal Pay Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that Obama signed into law in 2009, among other laws. Pay equality is not a new idea in the United States by any means, but it has yet to be completely corrected.
Critics of the new Massachusetts legislation have pointed to these prior laws in an attempt to show that this one is repetitive and unnecessary, but proponents of the new legislation say that it fills critical gaps left uncovered by its precedents. The original Massachusetts Equal Pay Act never defined comparable work, making it difficult to hold up or define in a court setting. Other critics, like Mark Gallagher of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, feels the bill is “misguided,” saying "By elevating the level of risk associated with merit-based compensation systems, the law could actually discourage an employer from paying more to a woman employee who is higher-performing than a male counterpart and vice versa.”
Supporters of the bill do not see this criticism as holding much merit. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy commented that “pay equity is not only a woman’s issue, it’s a family issue. When women are paid fairly and equally, we strengthen the economic security of families and households.” Fair pay would elevate household income as well as creating a fair playing field. A Boston resident interviewed by the Free Daily Press, Michelle Lewis, spoke out in support of the bill, stating, “If we’re expected to have the same credentials, we should be expected to receive the same compensation.”
Massachusetts is just one of many states that has picked up equal pay as an issue recently. The Washington Post is calling this almost a “supernova” approach with nearly half of the states in America trying to drive this issue forward. The issue is both important and, despite some criticism, hardly controversial. Lawmakers do not face much risk in losing voters by supporting this bill and it is generally well received by the press around the country.
While many states have taken it upon themselves to correct the wage disparity, President Obama is also taking action in the final year of his presidency. He is calling upon Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which, similar to many of the state actions, would give more resources to the employee to ensure fair pay standards. Along with his call to action, President Obama plans to host a summit that will analyze working environments women face. His administration will also attempt to find ways to collect pay data summarily to truly see if the wage gap is decreasing.
Attempting to end the wage gap is not only a gender issue—it affects nearly all minorities. While a white woman in America makes, on average, 78 percent of a white male’s salary, a black woman makes 64 percent and a Latino woman makes 54 percent. Black and Hispanic men do not fare much better, a U.S. population survey recently found.
The current bill in the Massachusetts legislature passed easily through the Senate and now it is waiting to be voted on in the House of Representatives. If it passes in this state, it will be one step forward towards greater equality and fairness for Massachusetts’s workers. If the “supernova” approach continues across American states, along with Obama’s actions, our country could be looking at a much shorter road until economic equality is a true reality. Lawmakers would no longer have to be working towards equality in their children or grandchildren’s lifetime—it could possibly occur within their own. Although the law does not appear to be very controversial, its impacts in speeding up the closure of the wage gap could reverberate much further across the national stage.