The D.C. Council is considering legislation to bar businesses from asking prospective employees about their salary history before making job offers, a practice advocates say exacerbates a cycle of unequal wages for women.
It’s the latest of several labor-friendly initiatives debated by the legislative body this year — including a successful minimum wage increase, a failed bid to offer retail workers more predictable hours and pending legislation to mandate paid family leave.
The proposal to limit the role of past pay during salary negotiations is one of the policy ideas cropping up across the country as part of a blitz of equal-pay legislation.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) introduced a bill earlier this week that would fine companies that ask for salary histories. It would also prohibit them from making jobs available only to prospective employees who earned a certain salary.
Workers, however, would be able to voluntarily reveal previous pay during negotiations.
Grosso is following the lead of Massachusetts, which earlier this year became the first state to prohibit employers from asking about past salaries. On the federal level, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) filed similar legislation last week in Congress.
At a time when women working full time are paid 80 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts, advocates say that allowing employers to consider salary history perpetuates that gap.
“As the employee trying to get the job, you have a hard time trying to argue for a higher salary, because [employers] are going to be able to point back and say, ‘You only make’ ” so much, Grosso said. “That perpetuates the wage gap.”
Still, the District has among the nation’s smallest disparities between men’s and women’s full-time earnings, according to various analyses, in part because of the dominance of federal workers, whose salaries are public and set by uniform scales.
Another pending equal-pay measure, introduced by D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) would create a looser standard by requiring equal pay for “substantially similar” work while giving employees additional time to take legal action in the event of violations.
All but two of the council members — Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) — have signed onto Grosso’s bill as co-sponsors. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) plans to hold a hearing on it this fall.
But even with broad support, it’s tough to shepherd through significant legislation with only three months left in the council’s session. Mendelson has made mandating paid leave for workers to care for new babies and sick relatives the top priority this fall.
One business advocate praised the intent behind Grosso’s bill but worried that a sweeping mandate for all businesses wouldn’t be effective and would carry unintended consequences.
“If that’s the appropriate approach to take to close the wage gap, it needs to be considered,” said Jim Dinegar, president and chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. “I just get so concerned the District keeps getting involved in all of these weeds of dealing with employers, and the message that gets sent is the District is a difficult place to do business.”
Because highly paid workers can still use their past wages as leverage in salary negotiations under Grosso’s bill, some critics say employers may end up lowballing prospective hires who declined to reveal their pay on the assumption that they made less than others.
“It’s not as though this means incoming employees will always have salaries unaffected by gender stereotypes and the gender wage gap,” said Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for workplace justice for the National Women’s Law Center, which supports equal-pay legislation. “But it means employers have to have a standardized way of offering salaries that doesn’t rely on past salaries, and that matters.”
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed legislation in May to prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who discuss their wages and from providing less-favorable advancement opportunities to women.