In Olympia the House has passed a bill to change Washington’s equal pay law, forcing employers to let workers share salary information if they want to.
Under the bill, any employee can ask any other employee what they make, and can share their own information, without being punished.
Employers who violate the law could be sued by their employees for twice the unpaid wages, plus interest.
Representative Tana Senn, the bill’s primary sponsor, said the change is designed to ensure women can get the information they need to spot discrimination.
“Currently, 50 percent of workers report that they’re either contractually forbidden or strongly discouraged from discussing their pay with their colleagues,” said Senn. “This is the very information, often times, that women need to know that they’re being underpaid.”
Senn said she understands that giving employees yet another tool to sue their employers isn’t a popular idea in the business world.
“I think there is an inherent difference between different groups that if lawsuits are a positive tool for change or if they’re a drag on businesses.”
But she said something had to change the status quo, because sex discrimination is entrenched.
She cites a study where employers were shown two identical resumes, except for the names.
“The exact same resumes, the only thing that changed was the person’s name. Time after time, the men were praised and thought they were a fabulous candidate and then women much less so,” said Senn.
While businesses may hate the idea of sharing salary information, Senn said they would eventually benefit because it would help the overall economy.
“If women were paid the same as men it would grow the GDP by three percent and more and more women would not need state assistance whether it’s childcare subsidy or food stamps,” she said.
According to Senn, this is why her bill allows workers to sue for damages: sex discrimination comes with a cost.
“The damage that is being done to families, the damage that is being done to our economy by these women not having the money in their pockets and the damage that we’re doing to the state’s budget, when these family rely on state assistance instead of earning the paycheck that they deserve. That is really where the damages come into play,” said Senn.
Under the bill, paying a different wage based on education, training, or experience would not constitute discrimination.
The bill got only a few Republican votes in the House, but Senn believes it’s a bi-partisan issue, and it still has a chance in the Republican-controlled state Senate.