The Massachusetts House has passed a bill aimed at helping ensure pay equity between men and women in the workplace.
The bill approved unanimously Thursday would bar employers from discriminating based on gender when it comes to wages and other compensation. It would require equal pay for men and women who perform jobs that require similar skills, effort and level of responsibility.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield) joined her colleagues in passing the legislation, saying the measures were a "long time coming."
"It was a matter of bringing it to the top of the priority list, and it took advocacy groups, education and years of effort from a lot of good people," Farley-Bouvier said on Friday. "Then it became a matter of working with the business community, who weren't specifically against [pay equity] but were concerned about regulations that might burden them. When the two sides got together we were able to move forward."
Farley-Bouvier worked on the issue consistently for her entire time in the House, but in particular credited Amherst state Rep. Ellen Story's 20 years of advocacy on the issue. Story's brief and celebratory remarks on the House floor on Thursday elicited a standing ovation from her colleagues.
The bill has outlawed employers requesting salary history in hiring, making Massachusetts the first state in the country to adopt such a measure.
It also allows employees to discuss their compensation at work without being fired and prohibits employers from reducing salaries in response to the law.
According to the Massachusetts Equal Pay Coalition, women earn just 82 percent of what men do in the state. Women of color are disproportionately impacted by the state's wage gap, with black women earning 66 cents and Latina women 54 cents for every dollar a man made.
Black men and Latino men also experience a wage gap in Massachusetts, earning 78 and 72 cents per dollar made by white males.
The national picture shows women in New York earn 87 percent of men's salaries and in Louisiana a meager 65 percent. On average nationally, women earn 79 cents on the dollar compared to men.
Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey said the new legislation balances the needs of workers and the business community.
The Senate approved their version of the bill in January. It would allow variations based on merit-based factors such as sales, experience or education.
Democratic legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker have identified the pay equity measure as one of a half-dozen major bills they hope to complete this session.
Baker has declined to take a position on the bill, being quoted by The Boston Globe as saying, "The devil oftentimes is in the details on this stuff" when asked about pay equity.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop), though always voicing support for "equal pay for equal work," also played it safe in the early discussions on the legislation. On Thursday, though, he offered the legislation his full support.
"Pay equity gets at the heart of who we are as Americans," he said. "I want to offer my sincerest thanks to the legislators who have raised their voices and tenaciously pursued this issue for decades. Your work will shape a better and more just future for women in the Commonwealth."
The legislation offers incentives to employers who seek to analyze the pay gap within their own companies and attempt to make changes. Employers don't have to act on the measure immediately but "are expected to work on it," according to Farley-Bouvier, who also pointed out that Healey's office has the authority to act on any complaints.
Part of the work, said Farley-Bouvier, was defining equal work, one classic example being the question of compensation to primarily male school custodians versus primarily female school cafeteria workers, the latter earning significantly less.
"I think it's going to make a big difference," Farley-Bouvier said.