Calling it “a very important milestone,” Governor Brown this week signed SB 358, trekking to Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park in Richmond for an celebrating the tough new pay equity bill aimed at closing the historic wage gap between women and men. We asked Susan Rose, our Elizabeth Cady Stanton Women in Politics Correspondent, to interview the measure’s author, Democratic state Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who represents the central coast, including Santa Barbara, the center of California’s political universe.
Q: Your bill, SB358 the Fair Pay Act, has just been signed by the governor and is being described as the “nation’s strongest equal pay Law.” How does it differ from California’s existing statute and the 1963 Federal Equal Pay Act?
A: California has had an equal pay law on the books since 1949, but it has been very narrowly interpreted as equal pay for exactly the same work. SB 358 changes existing law by allowing female employees to challenge the wages paid to male colleagues who are doing substantially similar work. An example I often use is the work of a hotel maid/housekeeper and a janitor. The work is not identical, but is very similar; one involves cleaning rooms, the other might involve cleaning a lobby. Yet these jobs are often segregated by gender. Why should a janitor make more money?
Additionally, the (existing) equal pay law allows an employer to claim any “bona fide” factor as a reason for paying a man more. But there are no restrictions on what qualifies as a “bona fide factor,” which renders this factor meaningless. As a result, the equal pay law simply hasn’t been strong enough to enforce in practice.
The bill also allows the employee to challenge pay at a different location of the same employer. The bill puts the burden on the employer to prove that a difference in wages is due to a legitimate business reason, such as experience or training. The bill also allows women to find out what other employees are making without the fear of being fired or retaliated against for asking. This is important, because you can’t challenge what you don’t know. Until now, women have been afraid to ask for fear of being fired for simply trying to learn whether they’re being paid fairly or not.
All this will result in an equal pay law in California that is stronger than federal law and that of any other state, and I am confident and hopeful it could become a template for other states to follow.
Q: Implementation is often a problem after legislation is passed. How will SB358 be enforced? Are there teeth in it?
A: An employee can enforce the equal pay law by either filing a complaint with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement or filing a civil complaint in the Superior Court.
The problem with existing law has not been on the enforcement side as much as that the law simply hasn’t been strong enough. The real teeth in this bill are that an employer will have to justify that the difference he or she is paying the male employee is due to a legitimate business purpose, such as experience, education, or training. In addition, employees will be protected against retaliation for inquiring how much other workers are paid.
My hope is that this bill will encourage employers to take a close and careful look at their pay practices to ensure that women are being paid equally for substantially similar work, so that complaints and lawsuits can be prevented.
Q: SB358 passed by 76-to-2 in the Assembly and unanimously in the Senate. What challenges did you face getting this legislation passed?
A: The support for this bill was bipartisan and widespread. Indeed, it passed off the Senate floor on a unanimous, bipartisan vote, which is stunning after so many decades of work on this issue.
But I think there is consensus that equal pay is long overdue. Our society has changed. We’re long past the point of women working for a little extra money on the side – what we used to call ‘pin money.’ Women’s wages are vital for keeping families afloat financially. As a result, there is little argument that women play an important role in the California economy.
It is estimated that California women leave $33.6 billion on the table due to a lack of equal pay, which is money that could be going to help support families and flow into our communities and our economy. I believe unequal pay hurts all of us, and clearly my colleagues agree.
From the very beginning, I worked with the California Chamber of Commerce and business interests to carefully craft this bill to significantly close the gender wage gap while maintaining a delicate balance for employers. The Chamber worked to find consensus in this bill and agreed that it provides clear guidance on what factors can be used when considering how much each employee should be paid.
Q: You’re chair of the Women’s Caucus. How many members are there? Is it bipartisan? What bills have they supported and what is their agenda for 2016?
The California Legislative Women’s Caucus is bipartisan and has 31 members, 19 Democrats and 12 Republicans. This year, the Democratic members of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus supported bills to strengthen economic opportunities for women as part of an agenda called “A Stronger California: Securing Economic Opportunities for All Women.” Women make up nearly half of the workforce and are often the sole breadwinners or primary breadwinners in many households. Yet they face obstacles – such as equal pay, access to childcare, a lack of family-friendly workplaces and poverty – which hold them and the state back.
The primary bills we supported this year were SB 23 (Repealing the Maximum Family Grant – Senator Mitchell), my SB 358, the California Fair Pay Act, SB 548 (Raising Child Care Quality and Accessibility Act (Pro Tem de Leon/Speaker Atkins); and AB 357 (Fair Scheduling Act – Assemblymembers Chiu and Weber); and AB 1394 (Increasing SSI/SSP – Assemblymembers Brown and Thurmond). The 2016 Caucus agenda has not yet been decided, but will likely continue focusing on women’s economic security.
Q: What difference does it make when women are in office and at the table?
It’s difficult to make generalizations, but my observation is that female legislators bring a sensitivity to issues that impact women, families and children. They bring a different approach and perspective to policymaking – one, I believe, that’s very focused on getting important work done.
Women also bring different life experiences to policy making which reflect values and priorities that are otherwise left unrepresented in the decision-making process. I think having women in key policymaking positions is critical to the success of our state. For instance, studies have shown that when businesses have more women on their corporate boards, it’s good for their bottom line — their businesses are more successful. I would venture to say the same is true for the policymaking arena.
We need more women to run for office and more women to serve in the Legislature. I believe our state will be stronger and better for it.
Susan Rose, former Executive Director of the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women, served eight years on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and is a board member of Emerge California, a Democratic group working to help women achieve elected and appointed office. Her last piece for Calbuzz reported on sexual assaults on campus.