Washington State Lawmakers Pass Gender Pay Equity Bill

Washington State Lawmakers Pass Gender Pay Equity Bill

On the eve of International Women’s Day, observed today, the Washington state legislature passed a landmark bill on Wednesday to introduce new statutory protections for employees designed to help close gender wage gaps and ensure equitable opportunities for men and women in the workplace. GeekWire’s Monica Nickelsburg has the details:

The bill updates Washington’s existing gender pay law for the first time since it was enacted in 1943. It forbids employers from instituting policies that don’t allow workers to discuss their salaries with one another. The new bill also requires employers to provide the same career advancement opportunities to all employees in comparable positions, regardless of gender.

Washington state Rep. Tana Senn sponsored the bill and worked on its language with the technology industry. She lauded support from the Washington Technology Industry Association, Moz CEO Sara Bird, and others. Senn said Microsoft had some reservations about the section of the bill pertaining to career advancement opportunities, but the company was “very actively engaged in working with us on language around that and we got to a great place.”

The Seattle area, home to a number of major tech companies including Microsoft and Amazon, has one of the largest gender pay gaps in the country, Nickelsburg adds, pointing to a study last year by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research showing that women working in King County earn 78.6 cents to every man’s dollar.

Some businesses and lobbying groups in Washington, including Amazon, had pressed the legislature to include a provision in the bill that would preempt local governments from instituting their own gender equity laws beyond what the state would require, Heidi Groover reports at the Stranger:

It remains unclear exactly what Amazon may be worried about. One possible next priority for Seattle in addressing the wage gap would be a ban on employers using workers’ past salary to set their pay. (Basing employees’ salaries off what they were paid at their last job can lock women and people of color into lower pay.) But Amazon claims it’s already doing that. In January, the company instructed recruiters within the company to stop asking new hires about their salary history.

The bill, which still awaits Governor Jay Inslee’s signature before becoming law, does not bar employers from asking candidates for their salary histories like other laws adopted in the past two years in Massachusetts, Puerto Rico, and New York City. On March 1, Massachusetts issued some long-awaited guidance to employers on its equal pay law, clarifying that it includes those who work from a Massachusetts base of operations, but travel out of state, and explaining that its definition of “comparable work” as work that “requires substantially similar skill, effort, and responsibility” is a broader definition than the “equal work” standard under federal law, among other issues.

Washington has taken other legislative steps to improve opportunities for women in the workplace, such as a law passed last year establishing a paid family leave entitlement, funded through a scheme into which both employers and employees will pay beginning in 2020.

The drive to enshrine workplace gender parity into law is controversial, with employers seeing such laws as excessive regulatory burdens and even some gender equality advocates questioning whether they will be enough to change deeply entrenched cultural norms about gender roles with regard to work inside and outside the home. So far, only one country has established this kind of legislation at the national level: At the start of this year, Iceland enacted a law under which the government must certify the pay equity policies of all companies and public agencies with at least 25 employees and will fine those that can’t prove they pay men and women equally.