California Equal Pay Bill: Groundbreaking, or Hollow Hope?

Women in California have achieved a momentous victory in the workplace. This summer, the state senate passed Senate Bill 358, a landmark equal pay bill that carries strong measures aimed at closing the long-standing wage gap in employment and increasing wage transparency. The bill supports and upholds pre-existing provisions of the California Labor Code that target workplace discrimination and unequal pay. SB 358 promises to be an effective enforcer and supplement to these laws.

The bill, authored by State Senator Hannah Beth Jackson, was voted on the senate floor on August 31, and passed unanimously 39-0. Governor Jerry Brown has promised to sign the bill when it reaches his desk.

In the United States, women on average earn 78 cents to every dollar men earn. Women in minority groups earn far less by comparison –– Latina women earn 44 cents and African-American women earn 68 cents. The issue has become a fighting front for politicians on the national scale; in recent elections and in Congress. California, in which women on average earn 84 cents to every dollar men earn, has been in the forefront of tackling numerous issues regarding inequality –– and wage fairness is now one of them.

SB 358 has garnered massive media coverage, with some even claiming that the bill is the strongest fair pay bill to be introduced in any state, and a possible model for other states to follow. With the passage of SB 358, the burden of addressing issues of unequal pay has shifted; employers will now be held liable for both detecting and addressing discriminatory practices in the workplace.

Part of the problem is that it has been difficult for women to prove that they were being discriminated against. Many companies silence – and even threaten to dismiss – employees who discuss pay, such as when former Google employee Erica Baker was dismissed after publicizing her colleagues’ salary records. Without the liberty to discuss compensation, no dialogue on the issue can be formed and any substantive effort at addressing it is made futile.

To address such grievances, the bill carries several provisions aimed at increasing employer accountability and wage transparency. One of the provisions of the bill directly combats salary secrecy by barring employers from penalizing employees who speak out in favor of equitable wages for women, even though discussing pay and working conditions is already a legal right protected by the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which passed in 2010 and allows for women to actively pursue claims against discriminatory practices in the workplace.

In terms of wage and compensation, SB 358 requires companies to pay male and female employees equal wages for “substantially similar work.” This means that men and women who work jobs that require similar responsibilities and skills at the same company must be paid equivalent salaries, regardless of title or workplace location. After the bill becomes law, employers will be required to base payment on matters of seniority, merit, and quality and quantity of work rather than gender.

However, the bill is not without opposition. Critics argue that when SB 358 becomes law, it will be difficult for employers to establish standards for determining what is considered “substantially similar work” in order to balance wages among men and women. However, critics claim this will lead to an increased risk of litigation if women feel that they are not being adequately compensated according to arguably arbitrary standards.

Governor Jerry Brown signs the bill into law on October 6, 2015 in Richmond, CA.

Opponents of the bill have also taken into account that women tend to work flexible and part-time jobs more often than men. This factor may make complicate employers’ ability to assess what female employees with special circumstances –– such as maternity leave or familial obligations –– deserve in compensation if they are judged according to the same standards as male employees.

The issue of delivering justice is an equally important one to consider after the bill becomes law. The provisions exist and the legislators will defend them to the public, but the true difficulty is in enforcement. As with any miscarriage of law, there must be sufficient evidence for it. As previously mentioned, corporations with discriminatory policies have taken advantage of loopholes within labor laws to ensure that the issue of pay is unspoken of in the workplace. The hope for SB 358 is that it will provide strong support for pre-existing wage laws without merely being rhetoric.

SB 358, in order to accomplish its goal of increasing wage transparency and being an effective enforcer, must ensure that corporations will address workplace discrimination and unequal wage. Pre-existing California wage laws also aimed to accomplish the same goals in the past, but loopholes made it possible for companies to work around them. Though the bill mandates that businesses base wage on other metrics than gender, it must also ensure that companies will follow these requisites in the long run. Only then can SB 358 live up to its reputation as groundbreaking legislation.