By Kurt Orzeck. Published on Law360, Los Angeles (October 6, 2015, 8:05 PM ET) — California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday signed into law a bill that aims to close the wage gap in the Golden State and that supporters say has the toughest equal pay protections in the country.
Brown’s office said in a statement on Tuesday that the governor — joined by dozens of state and local leaders, women and girls at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond — signed the California Fair Pay Act, which has received strong bipartisan support from the state Legislature.
California prohibited gender bias in 1949, but women in California made a median wage of 84 cents for every dollar men earned in 2013, according to the bill, which goes into effect on Jan. 1.
Current laws block employers from paying female workers less than male workers for “equal work” under similar working conditions. S.B. 358 — which was introduced by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, in February — will go a step further by blocking employers from paying women less for “substantially similar” work under similar working conditions.
Brown said in a statement on Tuesday that “Sixty-six years after passage of the California Equal Pay Act, many women still earn less money than men doing the same or similar work. This bill is another step toward closing the persistent wage gap between men and women.”
Jackson, chair of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus, said in a statement on Tuesday that due to the wage gap, California women are missing out on $33.6 billion dollars a year.
“After years of dealing with a persistent wage gap, and an equal pay law that has been on the books since 1949 but that is not as strong as it should be, the time is now for women’s paychecks to finally reflect their hard work and true value,” she said. “Today is a momentous day for California, and it is long overdue.”
Seth Neulight, a partner in Nixon Peabody LLP’s labor employment practice group who represents employers in employment matters in California, told Law360 on Tuesday that S.B. 358 “imposes tough new standards that both clarify and strengthen California’s existing equal pay laws. The passage of this bill underscores the need for employers to review and update their compensation systems to ensure that the rules for pay are reasonably related to legitimate factors other than gender.”
S.B. 358 will also protect workers from retaliation if they discuss or inquire about pay at work and allow them to challenge pay discrimination based on wages paid to other workers at different work sites of the same employer, according to Jackson’s office.
Employers will have to show that differences in wages are due to reasonable, job-related factors other than sex.
S.B. 358 has drawn the support of labor and equal rights groups, as well as the California Chamber of Commerce, which in June said it collaborated with Jackson on the bill.
The state Assembly passed the legislation on Aug. 27 by a vote of 76 to 2, after which the state’s Senate unanimouly approved the measure three days later.
Jackson’s office has said that S.B. 358 would be the strongest equal pay law in the U.S. Noreen Farrell — executive director for Equal Rights Advocates, a group seeking to expand and protect opportunities for women and girls — agreed with that sentiment in a statement on Tuesday.
“Because the California Fair Pay Act was signed today, more women in this state will be paid what they have earned,” Farrell said. “It is about fairness for workers, it is about good business and it is about time.”
Brown’s signing of the bill came after Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., in late Septemberintroduced a bill that would mandate that employers pay men and women equally, without reducing the opportunity to reward merit.
The Gender Advancement in Pay Act would prohibit retaliation against employees who discuss their pay information or potential employees who choose not to discuss their pay information and would create civil penalties for employers who willfully engage in sex-based pay discrimination, according to a statement by Ayotte.
–Additional reporting by Dan Packel and Kevin Penton. Editing by Stephen Berg.