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Legislature May Take Up Bill To Address Gender Wage Gap This Session

House Speaker Robert DeLeo
AP Photo

House Speaker Robert DeLeo wants to bring an equal pay bill to the House floor next week that aims to narrow the wage gap between genders. 

The thinking behind the bill is that if women know what their male counterparts earn—and their employers know they know—the wage gap could begin to close. So in order to get people talking more openly about earnings, the bill would ban employers from punishing workers for conversations about pay. It would also prevent employers from asking about a recruit's wage history to try to stop chronic underpayment for women. Companies would only be able to ask what pay range a recruit thinks they deserve.

State Sen. Pat Jehlen from Somerville says her bill would be a nudge in the right direction for pay equity.

"It's not going to eliminate the pay gap. But it gives women some tools , it gives people some tools, women and employers, to make progress," Jehlen said.

Of course, the Equal Pay Act was signed way back in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy. But as Jesse Mermell, president of the progressive group Alliance for Business Leadership says, it hasn't created true equity.

"The laws we've had on the books now for decades clearly haven't created pay equity," Mermell told WGBH News. "We know that from countless studies. And so this law attempts to rectify that and attempts to get towards the original intent of equal pay law of having no wage gap between equally qualified men and women doing the same job."

Groups like Mermell's and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce are backing the bill. But Mark Gallagher, a spokesman for the Massachusetts High Tech Council, a leading pro-business organization, says the bill limits how businesses determine compensation and prefer a bill that is more compatible with how business operates now.

"It puts the employer on the defensive," Gallagher said. "And it ends up being a tool less for employees and more for aggressive plaintiffs' attorneys."

The bill also allows businesses some limited protection from litigation if they voluntarily conduct an audit of their pay practices.

The Senate already passed the bill all the way back in January. The House hasn't scheduled a vote on Jehlen's bill yet, but DeLeo is keen to see it happen. The legislative session ends at the end of the month.

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