Could Backroom Efforts Deliver New Jersey Gender-Pay Deal?

John Reitmeyer | April 5, 2017 | Politics
Gov. Christie last year rejected legislation he said went too far. Sen. Diane Allen says bipartisan agreement is now within reach

Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) says lawmakers are close to agreement on pay-equity legislation.
State lawmakers seeking to establish the nation’s toughest protections against gender-pay discrimination in the workplace ran into a roadblock last year when Gov. Chris Christie rejected their legislation on grounds that it went too far.

While the two sides have been stuck in a public stalemate ever since, there’s also been a behind-the-scenes effort to reach a compromise. Those involved in the talks say progress is being made, suggesting a bipartisan deal could now be within reach.

“We’re close, we’re really close,” Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) said yesterday.

The attempt to find middle ground on the issue of gender-pay discrimination comes as activists throughout the country yesterday recognized Equal Pay Day. For the last 20 years, Equal Pay Day has been used to demonstrate the gap between what men and women are typically paid in the U.S. for the doing the exact same work.

Nationally, it’s estimated that women generally make 80 cents for every $1 that their male counterparts are paid, meaning they have to work until early April each year to collect the same wages that men earned the year before. In New Jersey, the gap is slightly better, with women receiving 82 cents for every $1 earned by their male counterparts, according to the latest figures from the National Women’s Law Center.

Trump election rekindled interest

Still, several bills related to the pay-equity issue have been advancing through the Legislature this year even as lawmakers remain at an impasse with the governor following his conditional veto last year. And those efforts have come as the recent election of President Donald Trump has rekindled interest throughout the country on issues related to fairness and equal rights.

“Knowledge is power and Equal Pay Day is trying to inform women and men across the U.S. that this is a problem and it needs to be addressed,” said Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio (D-Mercer).

Last year, lawmakers in both houses of the Legislature approved by wide margins a bill that would toughen New Jersey’s protections against gender-pay discrimination, including by increasing the size of damages that can be sought by victims of discrimination. The measure also sought to lift a two-year cap on back pay that victims can recoup, and it proposed strict reporting requirements for companies doing business with the state to ensure equal-pay standards are being met.

But Christie issued a conditional veto once the legislation reached his desk, saying though he supported some sections of the bill, other parts went too far. Christie took specific exception to allowing victims to receive tripled damages, saying such a change would “make New Jersey a liberal outlier.” He also labeled the reporting requirements that would be established for companies doing business with the state “outrageous bureaucratic red tape.”

In the wake of Christie’s conditional veto, Democrats who control the Senate, where the bill originated, refused to put his recommendations up for a vote. But an attempt to override the governor’s veto was also pulled back in late January after it became clear there weren’t quite enough votes in the Senate that day to succeed. It takes 27 votes to secure a veto override in the Senate, and though the measure received 28 votes when it was put up for final approval last year, several Republicans changed their votes in January, saying they now preferred to find a compromise with the GOP governor. Two Democrats who were likely to vote to override Christie were also absent the day the override was attempted.

Allen: ‘A lot of women have dealt with this issue’

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) pulled back the override effort before any votes were officially recorded, a procedural move that will allow it to be attempted again in the future. Sweeney is a primary sponsor of the bill, along with Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who is a longtime advocate of pay equity. Weinberg (D-Bergen) spoke forcefully on the Senate floor in January, saying pay discrimination has a compounding impact on women since Social Security and other retirement benefits are typically calculated off of annual income.

At the time, Weinberg said she was engaging in talks with the Christie administration to reach a compromise, but had yet to see much movement from the governor. Those talks, however, are still alive, Weinberg said yesterday. “We are still awaiting word back from the governor’s office on our last offer of compromise,” she said.

Allen said she’s also been involved in the compromise talks and believes after holding a meeting with the governor last week that good progress is being made on a number of issues that were in dispute. “We have to believe sitting down and making it work is the best thing to do on all sides,” Allen said.

Christie’s office did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.

A former television news anchor who experienced discrimination firsthand, Allen settled with a former employer after filing a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; she said she’s still hoping the final version will make New Jersey a national leader on the pay-equity issue.

“I think a lot of women have dealt with this issue, and obviously, I have on quite a number of occasions,” Allen said.

Political considerations

But as the two sides try to strike a deal, there are also political considerations for all involved. Christie has never been successfully overridden by lawmakers since taking office in early 2010. Yet his approval ratings have also sagged to historic lows for a New Jersey governor, making it more likely that members of his own party won’t be afraid to buck the governor.

This year is also Christie’s final year in office thanks to New Jersey’s term limits, and all 120 seats in the Legislature will also be on the ballot in November. That will likely put a brighter spotlight on issues like gender-pay discrimination than they typically receive in non-election years.

Lawmakers also haven’t been holding back this year on other legislation related to pay equity, especially in the wake of Trump’s recent election. Decade-old footage that emerged during the presidential campaign last year featured Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals without their permission. And since taking office in January, Trump has undone federal rules that required companies doing business with the federal government to disclose information about their pay practices.

In New Jersey, Muoio is sponsoring legislation that would require any business that accepts financial help from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to submit documentation to the state that verifies they pay men and women the same compensation for “substantially similar work.” Another measure would require companies bidding on state work to submit a report detailing their pay-equity standards.

“This clearly is an issue, and until we start dealing with that reality, women are going to be paid far less than men over their lifetime,” Muoio said. “It’s going to harm our economy, it’s going to harm our families and it’s going to harm women.”