States Take Lead On Equal Pay, With Legislation Stalled In Congress

Guess which party says equal pay laws will encourage frivolous lawsuits?

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama signed his first piece of legislation, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, seven years ago today, which made it easier for women to sue over gender-based pay discrimination. But momentum to pass more aggressive legislation has stalled in Congress, leaving it to the states to figure out how to further eliminate pay disparities between men and women.

The median yearly wage of a woman working full-time in the United States is about $39,600, which is just 79 percent of a man’s median earnings of $50,400. (The gap is even more pronounced when comparing Latinas and black women to white men.) Economists say some of that disparity can be explained by employers paying women less than men for the same work.

Democrats in Congress have pushed other measures to ameliorate pay discrimination since the Ledbetter Act was signed, like banning employers from retaliating against workers who share salary information with each other, imposing harsher penalties for pay discrimination and requiring employers to demonstrate that wage gaps between men and women doing the same work are based on factors other than gender. But Republicans have repeatedly blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act in the House and the Senate, arguing the bill would discourage businesses from hiring women out of a fear of being sued.

Republican women in the Senate introduced legislation last year to make it illegal for employers to retaliate against employees for talking to each other about their salaries, but Democrats opposed isolating that element from the rest of the legislation they want to pass.

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) hands Lilly Ledbetter a pen after signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act during an event in the East Room of the White House January 29, 2009, in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Barack Obama (C) hands Lilly Ledbetter a pen after signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act during an event in the East Room of the White House January 29, 2009, in Washington, D.C.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

With Congress gridlocked over the issue, Democratic governors in multiple states have recently taken action to address gender disparities in pay.

In Connecticut, for instance, Gov. Dannel Malloy signed legislation he introduced halting pay secrecy by making it illegal for employers to ban their employees from disclosing their own compensation or inquiring about a colleague’s wages. Malloy approved the bill in June after creating a task force to study the state’s gender wage gap.

“One of the big issues about salaries is that people don’t know what other people make -- I think that’s wrong in any state where it exists,” he told The Huffington Post. “We have freedom of speech; it should include freedom to speak about your work conditions.”

Malloy, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, touted the fact that “the states that are governed by Democrats have moved forward on this particular issue.”

“It is up to states to do this without Congress working,” he added. “There’s a reason Democrats do better with women than they do with men, because the party is recognized as taking this issue on.”

Other states with Democratic governors have made progress on curtailing gender discrimination in pay just in the past year, as Malloy mentioned. Legislation in New York, signed by Andrew Cuomo, allows employees to discuss their wages with one another without the threat of retaliation from their bosses. California’s new law, signed by Jerry Brown, requires equal pay for “substantially similar work” and also prohibits retaliation against workers who discuss their wages. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed an executive order directing state agencies to determine whether there are gender-based wage differences in their departments and to identify “best practices” to rectify the problem. Delaware’s Jack Markell signed a bill requiring companies contracting with the state to pay female employees equally and Oregon’s Kate Brown signed legislation encouraging state contractors to eliminate gender-based disparities in pay. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo also launched a tip line for employees to report gender-based wage discrimination.

Democrats in Washington, Colorado, Maryland and Massachusetts are pushing similar legislation that could pass this year.

While Republicans have generally opposed enacting equal pay legislation, four of the five states with the largest gender gaps in pay are led by GOP governors, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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