It’s been nearly six months since women marched in Washington, D.C., Trenton, and throughout the country in support of women’s rights. But a push to improve New Jersey’s pay-equity protections still remains a work in progress.
State Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) has just introduced new legislation that would toughen New Jersey’s gender-pay discrimination law, including by allowing the victims of discrimination to sue for full back pay rather than the current two-year cap on damages.
Her bill is attempting to bridge a partisan divide on the issue that arose last year after Gov. Chris Christie, a second-term Republican, rejected pay-equity legislation that advanced out of the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Despite lengthy bipartisan talks on the issue since then, Allen has yet to win support for her bill from Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), a primary sponsor of the legislation Christie rejected last year. That suggests the issue could be put on hold by Democrats until early next year, when Christie is due to leave office under New Jersey’s constitutional term limits.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in the full state Assembly last week passed another measure that’s aimed at narrowing the gap between the wages that men and women earn in New Jersey for doing the same job. The Assembly bill would prohibit employers from requiring job applicants to provide a salary history, and it would also ban them from punishing employees who disclose information about wages and job titles to their co-workers. That bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.
Nationally, it’s estimated that women generally make 80 cents for every $1 their male counterparts are paid for doing the same job, creating what’s commonly referred to as the gender-wage gap. In New Jersey, conditions are 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.
Weinberg’s 2016 legislation sought to make New Jersey a national leader in combating gender-pay discrimination, by increasing the size of damages that victims of discrimination can seek, among other things. 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 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.
Sue for damages
Allen’s new legislation, which was formally introduced last week, would allow the victims of gender-pay discrimination to sue for full back pay and it would allow victims to sue for double damages. It would also require employers doing business with the state to keep records detailing their employees’ pay, job titles, and gender.
“I’ve worked with legislators and the administration for months in an effort to reach consensus on reasonable reforms that will ensure pay equity for women,” said Allen, a longtime lawmaker who is not running for re-election this year when all 120 legislative seats will be up for grabs in November.
“I believe we have the opportunity to do something that will break ground for women nationally,” Allen said. “I encourage anyone who is serious about finding a solution on pay equity to join me in supporting this proposal.”
But Weinberg, a key leader in the Senate, said she is not supporting Allen’s legislation because she remains concerned about one important element of the bill. Though she declined to discuss the difference in detail, Weinberg said it relates to the standards that would be set for gender-pay discrimination lawsuits. She also praised Allen for her dogged efforts to find a compromise on the issue of pay-equity, and said the two lawmakers are still planning to meet again next month.
“She’s really worked hard on this,” Weinberg said of Allen.
‘A lot of bills’ ready for new governor
Weinberg also suggested that if Christie doesn’t budge on the element of the bill that she is concerned about, Democrats could decide to simply wait until early next year to seek all of the changes they want to make to the state’s pay-equity protections. In addition to this year’s legislative elections, voters in New Jersey will also be electing a new governor in the fall. Many in the State House expect a Democrat will win the 2017 gubernatorial election as Christie’s paltry approval ratings suggest that voters across the state have soured on the GOP, and all of the leading Democratic candidates have so far been calling for enhancing the state’s pay-equity law.
“We see a new governor coming in,” Weinberg said. “We’ve got a lot of bills ready to go for that new governor and this very well might be one of them.”
But Allen isn’t ready to give up, saying the disagreements on the issue between all sides now come down to resolving only “one final phrase.”
“The new legislation reflects the sum of bipartisan negotiations to date, and it represents a massive improvement over the vetoed legislation,” Allen said. “I sincerely hope Senator Weinberg chooses to continue working with us to pass this compromise legislation in the coming weeks, but we’ll keep fighting for pay equity regardless.”
Meanwhile, the measure that advanced last week in the Assembly is attempting to take on the specific issue of employers repeating gender-pay discrimination when they hire a new employee. Rather than have employers set their new employees’ wages based on a position’s pay scale, they often ask applicants for their pay history and then base their wages on that information. The Assembly bill would prohibit employers from requiring job applicants to disclose their prior wages and benefits.
“This provides a means of narrowing the wage gap by making it less likely for employers to unintentionally perpetuate the gap by basing salary offers for new hires on their previous salary, which has a disproportionate impact on female hires,” said Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Monmouth).
The measure would also seek to prevent wage discrimination by prohibiting employers from punishing an employee who discloses information about wages and job titles to a co-worker or former co-worker.