Progressive activists organizing a blitz of equal-pay legislation in dozens of statehouses found some success in Maryland this year with the Democratic-majority legislature and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
This month, Hogan signed measures expanding the state’s equal-pay law by prohibiting employers from retaliating against workers who discuss their wages and from providing less-favorable advancement opportunities to women. Advocates say it is the most comprehensive equal-pay legislation to become law this year.
“For a pro-business and conservative governor to sign this bill into law should send a signal that these laws are very common-sense and not oppressive to businesses,” said Nick Rathod, director of the State Innovation Exchange, which organizes national campaigns for progressive state laws.
But the provisions in the legislation are fairly modest compared to some of the proposals that have been floated elsewhere, including a bill in Hawaii that would require state contractors to report payroll and gender data and a Massachusetts proposal that would bar employers from considering salary histories in negotiations — a practice activists say perpetuates a cycle of unequal wages.
Equal pay has emerged as a top priority nationwide for Democrats, who are trying to burnish their appeal among female voters and paint Republicans as out of touch. The State Innovation Exchange says progressives plan to target Republicans in states that rejected equal-pay bills when those lawmakers are up for reelection.
The passage of the Maryland bills could help build momentum for other legislation at the statehouse level, advocates say, while Congress remains gridlocked.
“Some bills are more sophisticated than others . . . and part of it is the art of the possible,” said Lisa Maatz, a vice president of government relations with the American Association of University Women, which has made closing the gender wage gap its top priority. “Until we can get Congress to focus on this issue in a substantive way instead of using it to play politics with each other, the state level is where it’s at.”
The movement claimed a major victory in California last year, when the state chamber of commerce and Republican legislative leaders publicly supported an equal-pay law that requires employers to justify pay differences between women and men who are doing substantially similar work.
Nebraska and Utah adopted more narrow equal-pay provisions this year, while bills were defeated in Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana and Washington, and vetoed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).
Massachusetts is among the several northeastern states where pay-equity proposals are still in play. That state has a similar political makeup to Maryland, with a legislature dominated by Democrats and a moderate Republican governor.
What is driving wage disparities — and how to fix them — is a complex issue. The oft-cited statistic of women making 79 cents on the dollar refers to the difference between the median salaries of male and female workers, and does not reflect differences in experience level or the types of jobs men and women are more likely to seek.
The statistic does reflect the fact that women tend to disproportionately hold lower-paid jobs in society as a whole, a phenomenon that activists say is partly attributable to discrimination.
Proposals for equal-pay legislation attempt to address some of the root causes of wage disparities, from the secrecy surrounding salaries to deterring businesses from paying unequal wages by boosting penalties.
In Maryland, the newly approved legislation requires pay equity for workers across different offices and allows former employees to sue over pay discrimination for up to three years after their last paycheck.
Business groups opposed the bills, which the legislature approved by veto-proof margins and Hogan signed with little fanfare.
The first-term governor, whose campaign focused heavily on making Maryland more business-friendly, posed with equal-pay activists on the day of a bill-signing ceremony in Annapolis. But he did not mention the legislation during the ceremony, where he signed more than 100 other bills, and his office did not highlight the measures in its bill-signing news release.
“Governor Hogan believes in the principles of fairness and equality in the workplace,” said his spokesman, Matt Clark. “Given that both HB 1003 and HB 1004 were passed with strong bipartisan support in both chambers, it is evident that these same values are shared by Maryland’s legislators.”