By Rebecca Lessner
Women’s rights representatives are seeking “fundamental fairness,” by protecting workers who wish to discuss their wages and bringing in the issue of discrimination for gender identity in the workplace.
HB 1051 was brought before legislators of the House Economic Matters committee on Tuesday, where some legislators were stunned to hear statistics about disparate pay. Business leaders opposed the move, with their lobbyists saying it fails to take seniority into account in wage determinations and will result in frivolous lawsuits.
The bill would strengthen the current law to require equal pay to employees and also give protection to employees who want to discuss wages.
“Women in Maryland and nationwide earn respectably only 85 and 78 cents to every dollar that our male counterparts make for performing equal or comparable work. And for women of color, like myself, make significantly less,” said the bill’s sponsor, Del. Kris Valderrama.
Those cents tally up to women losing almost half a million dollars over a 40 year period.
“Rather than wait for Congress to act, Maryland should move forward in achieving pay equity for all people,” said Valderrama.
One issue not addressed explicitly in current law is gender identity. The proposed bill would strengthen equal pay for all, regardless of sex or gender identity.
A problem for decades
Donna Edwards, secretary treasurer of Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO, has been testifying on pay equity for decades and is not finished yet.
“The first time that I testified before a congressional committee was in 1988…it’s shameful that we’re still at this point,” said Edwards.
The women’s rights representatives believe having a wage transparency law will help end the wage gap, a tactic that has not been implemented previously.
“If an employer knows I can find out what the guy across the hall is going to be paid, I think the employer is a lot less likely to allow those disparities to persist,” said Liz Watson of the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC).
“In Maryland they found a woman who holds a full time job is paid on average $49,000 per year, while a man who holds a full time job is paid $57,000 per year,” said Karmen Rouland, member of the Montgomery County Commission for Women.
The study was conducted last April by the National Partnership for Women and Families.
“This disparity exists between all levels of education and occupation,” said Rouland.
However, some witnesses said the open discussion on pay will create a disgruntled work environment.
Opponents raise concern about business climate perception
“It creates enormous mischief,” said Bruce Bereano, lobbyist for the Alliance for Construction Excellence. “By allowing employees to maybe violate privacy by having discussion on pay.”
“Equal pay for equal work sounds fabulous…but in reality you can have people doing the same work but they will not get equal pay because someone has worked there longer, they have seniority,” said Bereano.
Del. Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore City, remarked that one factor in the discussion is people of ethnicity, including women, have not had the opportunity to achieve seniority.
“You can never equal someone in seniority when you have had discrimination for years,” said Glenn.
Jessica Cooper, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), is also opposed to the bill.
“We agree with the principle that an equal day’s work deserves an equal day’s pay. However existing legal frameworks already exist to protect employee discrimination based on gender,” said Cooper. “Lawsuits threatened or filed have substantial impacts on small business.”
Del. Mary Ann Lisanti did not understand the reasoning behind the bill being “bad for business” as stated by Cooper, echoing Bereano.
“Continuing to legislate in such detail, within the operations of a business… it does create a perception if not a reality about the business climate,” said Bereano, fearing that the detailed regulation would discourage new business in Maryland.
“It’s shocking to me in 2015 that we are having this conversation,” said Lisanti.
Watson, of the women’s law center, said that there is no evidence that the bill would result in greater litigation because equal pay has been the law since 1963. She added that employers may take steps to rectify disparities, leading to less lawsuits.
Watson believes the bill will “send employers a very clear message.”