Assembly committee advances equal pay legislation

“I have encouraged my daughter to know that she is worth as much as a man, or more.” said Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt.

Women vented to the Assembly Labor Committee as it considered what would be the nation’s toughest pay equity law. They talked about how women, on average, currently earn 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. For the average New Jersey salary, that’s a $12,000 annual wage gap.

“Over a 40-year career, you could be earning $450,000 less than a man,” said Lampitt.

The bill makes it illegal for employers to pay women, including pregnant women, less for doing “substantially similar work, when viewed as a composite of skill, effort and responsibility.” Victims could be awarded up to six years of back pay with triple damages.

“We can arm people who have been discriminated to get their back pay and get some justice,” said Dena Mottola Jabroska, associate director of New Jersey Citizen Action. “That’s one thing that the bill does, but it also helps prevent wage discrimination by shining the light on companies and their pay practices so they can really take a hard look and make sure they’re not discriminating.”

The bill also makes it possible for employees to actually discuss and compare wages and seek legal advice without fear of retaliation. Women told the committee they sometimes didn’t know their co-workers’ comparative salaries or faced reprisals for daring to ask about it.

“‘Why is he earning more than me?’ It was a hush,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter. “He was near-fired for discussing his salary with me at that time. I did get a pay bump, but it didn’t explain the silence and the fear that there would be termination because we discussed what we earned.”

“I had no clue what my pay was relative to the good old boys I was working with, and I knew I was at least as good as they were,” said Deb Huber, who heads the state chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Moreover, in New Jersey, more than 440,000 households are headed by women.

“This is more than a women’s equal pay bill. To me, this is a family equal pay bill because it solidifies and strengthens the family,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle.

The New Jersey Business and Industry Association supports the bill’s intent, noting in a statement, “Although we still have concerns regarding the application of treble damages to the full six-year look back period, we appreciate the sponsors’ willingness to cap the period at six years.”

The committee voted the bill out unanimously to the delight of its sponsor, who saw it languish for eight years under Gov. Chris Christie, but knows it’s welcomed by Gov. Phil Murphy.

“I’m euphoric. I’m emotional. This is just one of those moments as a legislator, 12 and a half years working on a piece of legislation, to see it finally gain this kind of momentum with the encouragement of bipartisanship is just overwhelming,” said Lampitt.

The bill now heads for an Assembly vote. There is a governor who says he is waiting and eager to sign it.

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