Working women, rejoice: New Jersey now has the strongest equal-pay law in America | Opinion

Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act NJ-25042018-0001
Gov. Murphy signs the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act into law, giving New Jersey the strongest equal pay law in the country. Immediately behind him are Allen, left, and activist Lilly Ledbetter.

The wage gap between men and women exists for a variety of reasons.  Our society devalues work done by women, there is a dearth of affordable child care, and we lack national family-friendly workplace policies like paid family leave and paid sick days. But of all the reasons the gender pay gap exists, discrimination should be easiest to fix.

That is just what the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck and Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt of Voorhees and signed this week by Gov. Murphy, will address. The law named Allen, a retired senator who championed the cause and was herself a victim of wage discrimination as a local TV news anchor, is the nation’s strongest wage discrimination law.

Although often difficult to uncover, wage discrimination against women is pervasive. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that one in four employed women said they have earned less than a man who was doing the same job, while just 5 percent of men said they have earned less than a woman doing the same job.

New Jersey women are paid 82 cents for each dollar a man earns. The wage gap is even greater for African American and Hispanic women. African American women in New Jersey are paid 58 cents for each dollar, while Hispanic women are paid 43 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. Mothers also experience a larger pay gap. In New Jersey, mothers who are full-time employees are paid 66 cents for every dollar paid to fathers.

The wage gap has a real effect on the lifetime earnings of women. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that the wage gap costs New Jersey working women nearly $16.6 billion in lost wages annually. In addition to lost wages, lower pensions and Social Security benefits accumulate at a far reduced rate during women’s time in the workforce. This has serious financial consequences for New Jersey women over the course of their entire lives, compromising their ability to financially support their families, afford home ownership, pay back student debt, and save for retirement.

The Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act will address wage discrimination in four ways:

  • The new law will allow victims of wage discrimination to recover up to six years of back pay, four more than current law allows victims to recover.  The law will strengthen the legal tools necessary to make a legitimate pay discrimination claim by taking away unfair employer defenses. Pay differences would only be permitted if the employer can show the difference was based on seniority, education and training, or merit.
  • The law requires courts to award triple damages for violations of the law. This will serve as a powerful deterrent and encourage New Jersey employers to closely examine the fairness of their pay practices and correct unfair or discriminatory pay differences.
  • The law makes pay more transparent by requiring companies bidding for public contracts to report salaries by race, ethnicity, and gender by job category. These companies will be more likely to closely examine the fairness of their pay practices, and correct unfair or discriminatory pay differences. This policy would be even more effective if expanded to include more New Jersey employers.
  • Finally, the law protects workers who discuss their pay with coworkers from employer retaliation, and prohibits employers from requiring employees to sign nondisclosure agreements. This policy creates the possibility that more workers might become aware of pay discrimination and therefore consider taking action, and that possibility increases the likelihood that employers will examine their pay practices and remedy discriminatory differences.

Women today are shouldering tremendous responsibilities to financially support their families, and are major economic contributors to our overall economy. Rooting out wage discrimination to help close the gender pay gap is long overdue.

Adopting the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act is an important and effective step toward closing the wage gap in New Jersey. But let’s vow as a state to view the adoption of this new law as a beginning, and not the end of action we might take to close the gender pay.

Dena Mottola Jaborska is New Jersey Citizen Action’s associate director and spearheads advocacy around issues affecting women at the workplace.