In 2015, the median income for women in the U.S. rose from 79 to 80% of what men earn. While it’s an improvement, state and local governments are attempting to reduce the gap.
In addition to mandates on employers and protections for workers, a proposed Paycheck Fairness Act would expose employers to lawsuits if they offered different salaries for comparable work for reasons other than education and experience. That effort remains stalled in Congress.
“We’re seeing states like California and Massachusetts and Maryland pass bills that have a lot of similarities to the Pay Check Fairness Act, and we can see states act as pilots and incubate different ideas,” said Kate Nielson, a policy analyst with the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a nonprofit that promotes education and equality for women and girls.
In Massachusetts, where women earn 83% of what men make, a slightly narrower wage gap than the national average, passed the first state law that prohibits employers from asking for job candidates’ salary history. A similar measure is expected to be introduced in the U.S. Congress.
The Massachusetts bill also requires men and women be paid equally for the same work and protects workers from retaliation for discussing how much they get paid.
Groups like the AAUW say deciding how much to pay workers based on what they previously earned hurts women because they were likely paid unfairly in their former jobs.
Opponents of the bill argue that it replicates existing state law, that it won’t reduce the wage gap and that it likely will hurt small businesses.
The inability to ask about a potential worker’s past compensation creates a liability concern for small businesses because potential employees might disclose their existing salary anyway, putting a company in violation of the law, contends the National Federation of Independent Business.
Even in New York, which has narrowed the wage gap more than any other state, women only make 89% of men’s earnings. No state has been able to close the gap for women completely, but Minnesota has eliminated the pay gap for women in the public sector.
The state requires its government, at the state and local level, to track salaries for all public sector workers who do comparable jobs, including teachers, and to raise wages if salaries do not match.
Researchers in Minnesota, where women on the whole make 81% of men’s income, say closing the gap completely will be impossible until men and women are equally represented in all types of jobs.
This year, at least 36 states introduced and several passed legislation to narrow the gap.
Maryland now prohibits employers from “mommy tracking,” directing female employees into less-favorable career paths, or not telling them about promotions or opportunities to advance.
Delaware barred employers from prohibiting discussions about wages or punishing workers who want to talk about how much they earn.
And Nebraska and Utah updated their equal pay policies to apply wage discrimination laws to more businesses and increase the damages employees can seek in those cases, respectively.
In California, three wage gap bills are in front of Gov. Jerry Brown. They would prohibit employers from using prior salaries to justify a disparity in compensation, compel state contractors to show they are following antidiscrimination laws, and keep employers from paying workers less based on race or ethnicity.
Last year, California decided that women could sue their employers over pay disparities for “substantially similar work.” Previously courts had ruled that such suits were only eligible when a man and woman were being paid differently for the exact same job.