Politico, Massachusetts, 7/11/16

BOSTON — As the legislative year wanes, the House is expected to take up equal pay legislation on Thursday.

While the House language was not yet available late last week, those involved with negotiations say the bill will be amenable to all parties. It is currently being tweaked in the House Committee on Ways and Means.

“I would say that it’s similar to the Senate version,” said Rep. Patricia Haddad, a Somerset Democrat.

The main difference, she said, is that the House worked more closely with Associated Industries of Massachusetts in developing the legislation.

In January, the Senate unanimously passed legislation to shrink the gap between men and women’s wages by prohibiting potential employers from asking about salary history and establishing a definition for “comparable work.”

Associated Industries of Massachusetts, or AIM, was critical of the Senate’s language. The group’s president, Rick Lord, confirmed that his team has been closely working with House leadership as well as the attorney general’s office “to hopefully come up with a bill out of the House that we would support.”

The Massachusetts High Tech Council, another group pushing back against the Senate proposal, sent a similar signal.

“Based on the conversations we’ve been having, we’re optimistic about the House-produced bill. It will be an improvement over what the Senate did,” said public policy and communications executive vice president Mark Gallagher.

Much of the concern from the high tech council came from a “significant burden of proof to show the pay differential between female and male employees is not based on discriminatory action,” Gallagher said. “It puts [an] employer potentially in a very defensive position should an employee or aggressive plaintiffs lawyer come forward with a claim.”

Such concerns have complicated efforts to bring the bill to the House floor.

“We’re trying to be sensitive to businesses, sensitive to their challenges, and not make this punitive,” Haddad said.

The House’s version of the bill is expected to deliver a number of tweaks to the Senate’s wording while still maintaining the core thrust of the bill.

“We found a balance that would be helpful to employers without changing the spirit of the legislation which was to make a level playing field,” Haddad said. “It was about making sure people have the opportunity to negotiate without their previous salary history adversely affecting them.”

The bill would strike down some company policies that prohibit employees from discussing their wages with colleagues.

“The bill being considered in the State House includes a number of tools for closing the wage gap, perhaps most importantly by ensuring that employees can be transparent about their compensation,” said Jesse Mermell, president of the The Alliance for Business Leadership.

“This bill doesn’t require that an employee’s salary be posted for all to see. Rather, it provides workers with the assurance that they won’t be punished for talking with their coworkers about compensation: The first step in knowing whether or not you’re being paid fairly.”

Advocates including the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, who were on-board with the Senate bill, said they worked to iron out a few technical tweaks with the House. “We’re in a good position,” said Erin Trabucco, the chamber’s director of government relations.

Attorney General Maura Healey has been another aggressive booster of the legislation, calling it “a core economic security issue for women and families in this state.”

“This bill makes much-needed updates to the law and carefully balances the needs of workers and businesses,” Healey said in a statement Friday.

Senate President Stan Rosenberg called on “our laws to reflect our values.”

“I hope we have a bill for the governor to sign very soon,” Rosenberg said in a statement Friday.

While Haddad predicted solid House support, she conceded that it would likely not be unanimous.

“I’m not saying that it’s perfect but usually when we get something to this point, when it’s been through multiple committees, I think that there will be enough momentum behind it” to send the bill to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk, Haddad said.

Momentum has been key as support for the bill has increased. Rep. Ellen Story estimates she has filed a bill similar to the one under consideration at least twice in sessions prior to this, “if not three or four times.”

“When we started trying to do this, a lot of our colleagues thought this was just pie-in-the-sky and then we got some heavy hitters on our side,” Story said. One of the key heavy hitters was Jim Rooney of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, who came out in support of the bill this winter.

Story, an Amherst Democrat serving her final term in the House after being elected in 1992, says she is looking forward to voting on the bill when it reaches the floor on Thursday.

“I think it’s a good day for all citizens of the commonwealth and businesses,” Story said. “This is a win-win. And I’m just so glad that we’re finally doing it.”