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Another Try at WA Equal-Pay Legislation Gains Momentum

Lawmakers in Olympia are considering a bill to address the wage gap between women and men Washington State. (Rachel Samanyi/Flickr)
Lawmakers in Olympia are considering a bill to address the wage gap between women and men Washington State. (Rachel Samanyi/Flickr)
March 14, 2017

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Legislation aimed at closing the pay gap between women and men is once again making its way through the State Legislature - this time with more momentum than ever before.

House Bill 1506 would allow employees to discuss wages without retaliation, to help uncover pay disparities between women and men doing the same job. It also requires employers to have job-related reasons for differences in pay and career opportunities. It's the third year in a row the House has passed such a bill.

Rep. Tana Senn, a sponsor of the bill, thinks more lawmakers and business owners have recognized the pay gap is an issue.

"We've gotten business on board, we have more advocates who recognize that this is something that we do need to address," he said. "And I think business wants to get this issue, for lack of a better term, off their plate."

Women in Washington make 79 cents for every dollar men make. For women of color, the gap is greater. African-American women and Latina women make 61 cents and 46 cents, respectively. This year's version of the bill passed with six more supporters than last year's, and now heads to the Senate.

Its opponents predict that litigation against employers would increase if it became law.

However, Marilyn Watkins, policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, says the legislation could actually have the opposite effect. Under the bill, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries could enforce workplace gender-discrimination cases.

"Right now, the only way a worker who discovers they're being discriminated against can take any kind of action, or get any kind of back wages or anything else, is to sue their employer," she said. "That's the only route that workers have now. But this actually adds an administrative route, so fewer workers would have to take their employer to court."

Watkins says the pay gap has a cumulative effect. According to the National Women's Law Center, the wage gap will cost a Washington woman nearly a half-million dollars over a 40-year-career, jeopardizing her financial security at retirement.

"That's why we see so many women, who are either single or widowed, really living in poverty in their old age," she explained.

If passed, the bill will update the Washington State Equal Pay Act for the first since its passage in 1943.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA