Hassan declares ‘Equal Pay Day’ as Democrats urge N.H. House to pass wage fairness bill
State Democratic leaders strongly urged the House to pass a paycheck fairness bill yesterday as the governor declared “Equal Pay Day,” a day meant to draw attention to the continued gap between men’s and women’s wages.
The push also coincided with a national movement on wage equality. The U.S. Senate is set to vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act today, and President Obama signed two executive orders related to wage fairness yesterday. Studies show women in New Hampshire on average make 77 cents to every man’s dollar.
“Thanks to the gender pay gap, it takes women an extra three months of wages to make up that 23 percent difference,” Senate Minority Sylvia Larsen, a Concord Democrat and sponsor of the legislation, said yesterday. “It’s my hope that in the coming years we won’t have to recognize such a day.”
Larsen’s bill passed the Senate unanimously earlier this year. The House Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitation Committee took testimony on the bill yesterday afternoon. No one spoke in opposition to the full bill, but two business lobbyists suggested slight changes.
About one-third of the wage gap can’t be explained by factors such as hours worked, occupation, college major and other factors that affect pay, according to data from the American Association of University Women.
Unequal pay, even in early jobs, can affect a woman – and her family – for her entire life, supporters of the bill said. It could mean putting less food on the table, saving less money for a child’s college education or putting away less money for retirement than men can, supporters said.
The New Hampshire bill says employers can’t pay two equally qualified people different salaries for the same work based solely on gender and, in the face of complaints, requires employers to prove that pay differences are the result of other factors.
Beyond that, it aims to curb gender discrimination by giving employees more resources to learn about and challenge pay differences. Under the bill, employers can’t retaliate against employees who file complaints or discuss their wages. This provision of the bill wouldn’t apply to employees in human resources and departments that have access to other people’s pay. Information about the state’s current equal pay laws is not readily available on the state Department of Labor’s website.
Stephanie Kuhn, a junior at the University of New Hampshire, testified in support of the bill yesterday. Without this bill, she said, she and other women may have no way to verify whether they’re making the same amount as their male counterparts, which limits their ability to act.
“I was raised to believe that if I apply myself there is no limit to what I can achieve, but currently the New Hampshire law says otherwise,” she said.
The New Hampshire Women’s Initiative has run a series of listening sessions across the state with women of varying ages, races and career fields, board member Mary Johanna Brown said. The No. 1 issue these women wanted to talk about was pay equality, she said.
“We believe (the bill) will stimulate economic growth and position New Hampshire as a role model for both employers and employees,” she said.
The bill also extends the time period for which someone can bring a complaint. Right now, someone can bring a complaint up to one year after the wage discrimination occurs. The new law would extend that to three years from when the discrimination is discovered.
Three years too long?
Both the Business and Industry Association and the New Hampshire Bankers Association said they agreed with the aim of the bill, but thought the three-year provision was too long. The federal Lilly Ledbetter Paycheck Fairness Act, signed into law in 2009, set the limit at 180 days from the last paycheck where wage discrimination occurred.
“Three years is a very long time to let a valid claim lay idle,” said Tom Fahey, vice president of government relations for the bankers association.
At that time, it could be harder for either the company or employee to prove their side, he said. Furthermore, wage discrimination is likely to be pervasive throughout a company rather than targeted at one individual, Fahey said. The sooner an individual files a claim, the more likely it will be to stop discrimination against others, he said.
Federal bill in progress
Meanwhile, at the federal level, U.S. senators are preparing for a vote on federal paycheck fairness legislation. Democrats are striving to make wage equality a 2014 campaign issue. This vote is largely symbolic, as the U.S. House of Representatives is unlikely to bring it to the floor.
Democratic leaders say an update to pay equality legislation signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 is long overdue, while some Republicans question whether it’s necessary to add a new law to the books.
The federal legislation before the U.S. Senate is similar to the New Hampshire law. Obama signed two executive orders, one that bans federal contractors from discriminating against employees who discuss pay and another that will require those contracts to submit wage data to the U.S. Department of Labor.
U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, said she plans to vote for the federal legislation, while U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, said she plans to vote against it.
“Pay discrimination is not fair, is not right, and every day that it persists is a day when we do an injustice to hardworking American women. Equal Pay Day is a stark reminder that while we have made progress in the last several decades, pay discrimination continues to hurt women, families and the economy,” Shaheen said in a statement.
Ayotte, however, is backing an amendment called the Workplace Advancement Act, which also prevents employers from retaliating against workers who discuss their wages and requires employers to post information about pay equality rights. On the Senate floor, Ayotte called out Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, for not allowing a vote on the amendment.
She also said on the floor that she worries the legislation could limit an employer’s ability to award merit pay, even to women.
“As a woman, I would like the opportunity to outperform and be paid more,” she said.
The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on the legislation today. In the New Hampshire House, the Labor Committee is likely to make a recommendation on the bill next Wednesday.
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)