MeroWestDailyNews, News, 2/1/16

The state Senate unanimously passed a bill Thursday to help close the pay gap between male and female workers in Massachusetts.

The “act to establish pay equity” is built off a bill initially passed in 1945 to ensure that workers receive equal pay for equal work regardless of gender. Currently, women make up roughly half of the state’s workforce, but on average are paid 82 percent of what men make. The disparity is even wider among racial lines, with African-American women only making an average of 66 cents on the dollar and Latina woman making 54 cents in comparison to men with the same qualifications in the same field, according to state Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland.

Spilka, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, filed the bill along with Sen. Patricia Jehlen, D-Somerville. The measure includes provisions to empower workers and encourage employers to offer equal pay. Included are provisions to prevent employers from punishing employees who share their salaries with co-workers or who report discrimination. Employers would also be forbidden from asking about past salaries during the interview process, as prospective employees may be offered less at new jobs if they have been paid less at old jobs.

The bill also gives businesses which have been accused of discrimination the opportunity to perform self-evaluations to show that significant progress has been made towards ensuring equal pay.

“If women start out at a lower salary, then those losses are perpetuated and magnified,” Spilka said. “Women will earn less not just in wages, but in their pension, in Social Security and anything else dependent on their pay.”

Although the law in Massachusetts currently states that men and women must receive equal pay, the gap has taken decades to close. Since 1963, when a federal pay equity law was passed, women were earning 59 cents on the dollar to men. If left untouched, the gap would not be closed until 2058.

“It has taken decades and decades to correct itself and it is moving too slowly,” Spilka said. “Is a 20-cents increase after 53 years sufficient? I would say no.”

According to Jesse Mermell, executive director at the Alliance for Business Leadership in Boston, ensuring pay equity is good for businesses and for the economy. Citing the National Partnership for Women and Families, Mermell said the wage gap costs the economy billions of dollars every year in money that could have been spent on food, gas and rent. As well, ensuring equal pay will help attract top talents to jobs.

“This is a real no-brainer for us,” Mermell said. “Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because the economic factors are significant.”

In addition to the Alliance for Business Leadership, the bill has been praised by Attorney General Maura Healey, Treasurer Deb Goldberg and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

However, the Boston Globe┬áreported Friday that the bill is being opposed by the Massachusetts High Technology Council and Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which warned it could cause “unbridled litigation.” State Sen. Mike Barrett, D-Lexington worries that lobbying efforts could make getting the legislation through the House of Representatives more difficult.

“If the Legislature enacts it, the new law will trigger an additional amount of pressure on all of us,” Barrett said. “We’re looking for a big headline that says don’t discriminate on pay. We start to the change the culture by making big statements. We hope the House passes it in the next 90 days, because it would send the wrong message if some version of pay equity fails to pass.”

Gov. Charlie Baker has not yet taken a stance.