Bill would increase fines on employers who violate equal pay law

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Del. Pam Queen testifies before the House Economic Matters Committee. MarylandReporter.com photo by Diane Rey

By Diane Rey

For Maryland Reporter

An employer who violates the state’s Equal Pay for Equal Work law would have to pay a 10% penalty to the state if a bill heard by the House Economic Matters Committee Tuesday passes.

The legislation, HB790, would require an employer who violates the Equal Pay law to pay a civil penalty equal to 10% of the amount of damages owed by the employer. The money would be paid to the state’s general fund to offset the cost of enforcing the Equal Pay for Equal Work law.

Del. Pam Queen, D-Montgomery, is the lead sponsor, joined by 22 other Democrats.

Regardless of employer size, under the State’s Equal Pay for Equal Work law, an employer may not discriminate by paying a wage to employees of one sex or gender identity at a rate less than that paid to employees of another sex or gender identity if both employees work in the same establishment and perform comparable work. An employer also must not discriminate in employment opportunities based on sex or gender identity.

Currently, an employer who violates certain provisions of the Equal Pay for Equal Work law is guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a fine of up to $300. This bill increases the fine.

Written testimony in support of the bill was submitted by the American Association of University Women; David Rodwin, an attorney with the Public Justice Center; Jen Diamond, communications and program manager with the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, and Michelle Siri, executive director of the Women’s Law Center of Maryland.

Business groups opposed

A panel of four representing business groups urged lawmakers to reject the bill.

Cailey Locklair Tolle, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, told delegates that the current law is sufficient and “additional penalties are not necessary.”

Currently, when the Commissioner of Labor and Industry has determined that the State’s Equal Pay for Equal Work law has been violated, the commissioner must try to resolve any issue informally by mediation or ask the attorney general to bring an action on behalf of the employee.

An affected employee can also file a lawsuit against the employer, according to the bill analysis.

Mike O’Halloran, Maryland state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), said there have only been 11 complaints since Maryland’s Equal Pay for Equal Work law was enacted in 2016. He said employees who bring “baseless lawsuits” against employers under the law is an issue that needs to be remedied.

Champe McCulloch, president of the Maryland Chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, argued that, “Wage equivalence is very difficult to measure and establish, particularly at the executive level.”

McCulloch called current law sufficient and said the bill was an example of “piling on.”

“We think imposing these penalties would be unjust,” he said.

Larry Richardson, vice president of government affairs for Maryland Chamber of Commerce, also urged the committee to give the bill an unfavorable report.

Reach Diane Rey at Reywriting@gmail.com.