Gender, Inequality

Thanks for the long-overdue pay raise, Massachusetts

The state passes a bill that aims to eliminate the pay gap between the genders.

Here are The Tempest, we’ve frequently railed against wage inequality and the gender pay gap. But here’s a bit of good news from Massachusetts: earlier this month, the state signed into law the Act to Establish Pay Equity. It hopes to attack the wage gap from a number of angles, but the overall goal of the new law is to insure that all employees earn an equal amount for working at the same level, regardless of gender.

One of the most revolutionary parts of the law prohibits employers from asking how much potential employees made at their past job. This may not seem significant, but many recent graduates and entry-level workers are content to accept a low starting salary, particularly in this economy. “I’ll make it up later,” they think — but for women this can far too often be the start of a career-long inequality in salary. If their next employer asks how much they made at their previous job and they give a figure that is lower than what the prospective employer planned to pay, it could lower the rate their new employer will pay them.

The law, which passed unanimously, also defines legitimate reasons for differences in pay for two employees who do the same job. Education, experience and seniority were some of the factors that may justify paying one worker more than another. Sales performance may also be a relevant factor in some jobs. But a key change in the definition of seniority also allowed that when employers are determining seniority, women cannot be penalized for the time they take off for maternity leaves, medical leaves, or family-related leaves.

The new law also aims to improve transparency and accountability both for businesses and for employees. It is technically illegal to prevent employees from talking about salary if they choose to do so, but the Massachusetts law reinforces this standard, encouraging employees to compare salaries and make sure employers are paying them fairly.

Although this seems like it may be a disadvantage to some businesses, there are also advantages for them. Because the law more clearly defines the differences that would allow employers to pay employees different salaries, it allows companies to defend themselves from lawsuits by proving that they were looking to change their payment practices.

According to Mother Jones, the current wage gap in Massachusetts is such that white women only earn 82 percent of what men typically earn. The law allows for an adjustment period of almost two years, and will come into effect on July 1, 2018.

Passing this law puts Massachusetts on a list with other states such as California, New York and Maryland that have also passed pay-equity laws. At a national level similar legislation was proposed in 2012, but was blocked by Republicans. In the absence of national progress, it seems that states have taken it upon themselves to pass laws that provide for greater equality.

Massachusetts was at the forefront of this type of employment law, pass the first one in 1945. Still, the law that was just passed had been proposed for the first time in 1998, proving that there was quite a delay between the proposal and the passing of the bill.

Hopefully this law will be effective in achieving pay equality between the genders. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is a cure-all. As The Atlantic points out, wage differences are governed by a number of complex factors, and may not be caused entirely by employers.