Washington minds the gap: Legislature passes Equal Pay Opportunity Act

OLYMPIA—It was 1943 when Washington passed a law making it illegal to pay a woman less than a man for similar work. Three-quarters of a century later, a white woman working full time in Washington state makes 76.5 cents to the dollar that her male counterpart earns.

It’s worse for women of color. African American women make 61.1 cents; Native American women, 59.8 cents; and Latinas are at the bottom of the ladder, making only 46.3 cents to every dollar paid to white men doing the same work.

Things are about to get better for women with passage of the Equal Pay Opportunity Act earlier today to help close the longstanding gender pay gap between men and women in the Evergreen State.

“This legislation is the result of a collaborative effort with the business community, the labor community, and dedicated community and women’s groups,” said the prime sponsor of House Bill 1506, Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, who has relentlessly brought forth legislation addressing the wage gap in Washington state every year since 2015. “I’m proud of the work we accomplished, and look forward to both women and men being empowered to talk about their wages, to address inequality when they see it, and to not be fearful of retaliation.”

Senn’s legislation will make it easier for women to talk about their earnings with co-workers, and will ensure there’s no backlash for employees who discuss their wages or who ask for equal pay.

While the main goal of the Equal Pay Opportunity Act is to reduce the wage gap between men and women, it goes a step further. Unlike laws in other states that only offer protections for employees who are paid less on the basis of gender, Senn’s legislation extends those protections to employees who are offered lesser career advancement opportunities based on gender. By requiring equal growth opportunities and fair treatment in the workplace, the bill seeks to ensure women will receive the same promotional opportunities as men within a company.

The House has passed a version of this bill four years in a row, but this is the first time the Senate, now with Democrats in the majority, gives it its seal of approval as well. The bill is now on its way to Governor Inslee for his signature.

“Too often, women performing the same work as men and who have the same education as men are paid less than men, see fewer opportunities to move up in their fields and struggle to meet the basic needs of their families or to save for the future. They are living with a financial deficit that not only hurts their families, but also stifles economic growth and holds our communities back,” said Rep. Mike Sells, who chairs the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee. “All workers deserve a fair shot and an equal opportunity to succeed, and that’s what this bill will give them.”

Equal pay provisions currently in statute are outdated and not well enforced; the Equal Pay Opportunity Act updates the law for the first time since its inception by, among other things:

  • Defining “similarly employed” as jobs that require similar skill, effort, and responsibility, and are performed under similar working conditions
  • Prohibiting employers from imposing pay secrecy policies
  • Preventing discrimination by gender in providing career advancement opportunities
  • Banning employers from retaliating against employees who file complaints, discuss wages or seek advancement opportunities
  • Ensuring employees are entitled to administrative and civil remedies in the event of violations.

A point of concern for supporters and advocates was the possibility that Senn’s bill could be watered-down by adding preemption provisions. Fortunately, the legislation headed to the governor’s desk does not prohibit local governments from adopting and enforcing their own anti-discrimination measures.

Several businesses, women’s groups, classroom students and other organizations including MomsRising, the Economic Opportunity Institute, United Food and Commercial Workers, the League of Women Voters, the Washington State Labor Council and the Washington Technology Industry Association joined legislators to support the call for equal pay and opportunities for Washington women.

“After years of hard work by lawmakers, moms and women, and advocates, MomsRising is thrilled that the Equal Pay Opportunity Act will finally become law,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, CEO and executive director of MomsRising.org, a national online and on-the-ground organization of more than 40,000 members in Washington state and more than 1 million members across the country. “The wage gap costs Washington women $18 billion each year – moms and women of color are the most impacted by wage discrimination. This bill is a win-win-win for our families, small businesses, and economy.”

This year, Equal Pay Day falls on April 10, the symbolic date that represents how far into the new year the average woman needs to work to make what her male counterpart did the year before. In passing the Equal Pay Opportunity Act one month before this iconic day, the Legislature reaffirms Washington state’s core values of fairness, equality and opportunity.

“It’s beyond time for us to take this next step on the path toward equality in the workplace. As we lift the veil of silence around sexual harassment, so must we remove the secrecy around wages and opportunities,” Senn added.