BUSINESS
08/03/2016 02:44 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2016

Job Interviewers Can’t Ask This Question In Massachusetts Anymore

It fosters pay discrimination and it’s over.
The Republican governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, signing the pay equity law on August 1 surrounded by some very happy
Boston Globe via Getty Images
The Republican governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, signing the pay equity law on August 1 surrounded by some very happy women.

Thanks to a revolutionary new equal pay law signed by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) this week, job interviewers in the state can no longer ask applicants how much money they make.

That’s just one piece of the law, hailed as groundbreaking by the academics, policy wonks and politicians who are fighting to close the persistent gulf between what men and women earn in the United States. Its passage, pushed through by both Republicans and Democrats, is a strong sign of the growing economic and political clout of working women, who are increasingly the sole or primary breadwinners for their families.

The law is also an indication that the equal pay issue is moving front-and-center into the national conversation. “The hope is that the bipartisan law will help spark change at the federal level,” Amy Traub, a senior policy analyst at Demos said. “There’s more energy behind these issues.”

Hillary Clinton, who’s been outspoken on equal pay, applauded the law Tuesday night. Donald Trump’s campaign did not respond to HuffPost’s questions about the new policy.  

Massachusetts was first on equal pay more than 70 years ago, passing the country’s first law prohibiting employers from paying women less than men for the same work in 1945. The federal government didn’t pass anything until 1963.

Hopefully, this time around, it won’t take nearly 20 years for the feds to follow the lead. There are currently two bills kicking around Congress that seek to strengthen equal pay policy.

“This law is much stronger and goes farther than [other equal pay laws],” Vivien Labaton, a co-founder of nonprofit group Make It Work, which focuses on economic security for women and families, told The Huffington Post. “It’s a big deal.”

Massachusetts’ law is the first to prohibit the salary question ― a pretty standard interview ask.

Proponents say forbidding the question will mean that women won’t have to drag around their low salary from job to job anymore. If you’ve been interviewed for a position, you probably know the stress that question can bring on. If you’re underpaid in your current role, you don’t want your next employer to lowball you. If you’re overpaid (should we all be so lucky) you don’t want to take yourself out of the running.

Jennifer Lawrence put the gender pay gap issue on the map last year when it was revealed she was underpaid relative to her ma
Adrees Latif/Reuters
Jennifer Lawrence put the gender pay gap issue on the map last year when it was revealed she was underpaid relative to her male co-stars.

How it usually would work is: The interviewer would say, what are you making now? You’d say $25,000 ― even though you know you’re being underpaid and feel like you maybe could double your pay at the new company. Oh well, your employer hears your number and winds up only offering you a 10 to 15 percent bump on your current income. The cycle of low pay goes on.

The law still allows applicants to reveal their pay during the negotiating process.

“It’s a question that plagues people,” said Deborah Kolb, a professor emerita at Simmons College who advises many top female executives on their careers and is the author of “Negotiating at Work.”  

It’s particularly agonizing for women who are changing careers ― going from, say, a position in government to the private sector, Kolb said. Don’t answer the question, if at all possible, she advises. You can try to say something like, I expect to be paid fairly or turn it around and ask the interviewer what the range is for the position. That’s harder though if the question is posed in an online application, which is common.

The question prohibition is just one piece of Massachusetts’ new law. The state has also expanded the definition of equal work, emphasizing that women should be paid the same as men for “comparable” work, defined in the legislation as “work that is substantially similar in that it requires substantially similar skill, effort and responsibility and is performed under similar working conditions.”

That could mean a female cafeteria worker at a company could not be underpaid relative to a male janitorial worker. Or the woman who runs the style section of a newspaper could not be underpaid relative to the man who runs the investing section. Employers still can vary pay based on seniority, merit, productivity, education, training, cost of living or travel, the law makes clear.

The legislation also goes far in encouraging workers to tell each other how much money they make, regarded as a key component of pay fairness. It’s not always easy to know if you’re underpaid; it helps when you can ask the guy next to you what he makes.

When the legislation goes into effect in 2018, companies will be prohibited from retaliating against workers who openly discuss their salaries.

If the law’s preventive aspects fail workers, Massachusetts has also removed procedural hurdles to filing complaints. The state’s current equal pay legislation only allowed you 300 days to file a complaint if you felt you were paid unfairly. Now you’ll get three years. Other procedural hurdles have also been lifted.

Though Massachusetts was a first mover in pay equity, it’s unclear if the old law as written was effective. Since the 1970s, only 50 cases in the state have even cited it, noted Amanda Baer, an employment lawyer in Westborough, Massachusetts. She said since its passage, employers in the state have reached out to talk about how they should tweak their hiring process to avoid the salary question.

Pay unfairness is notoriously tough to prove. A massive group of female Walmart workers famously lost their fight for pay equity at the Supreme Court because it was ruled that their complaints were too different for the women to constitute a clear class with standing to sue.

Lilly Ledbetter, who found out she was being paid far less for years at Goodyear Tire, lost her case at the Supreme Court because the court ruled that under the law she only had 180 days to file her claim after the first instance of unfair pay. Ledbetter found out she was being paid unfairly after years. The federal law was updated after she lost her case.

Women are on average paid only 79 percent of what men make in the United States for a complex stew of reasons, from straight-up discrimination to differences in career choices and more.

In Massachusetts the number is slightly higher, women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man makes. But African-American women earn only 61 cents on the dollar and Latinas 50 cents.

Women in the state lose out on $11 billion a year because of the pay inequity in the state, according to research from the National Partnership for Women and Families. In tangible terms, that would mean 85 more weeks of food for a woman’s family, six more months of mortgage and utility payments or more than 10 more months of rent.

Fair pay wouldn’t just boost the economy it would lift up the millions of families that rely on a woman as a primary or secondary provider.

“Even though equal pay is described as a ‘women’s issue’ it is core to the economic stability of millions of families in this country,” Labaton said.

Laws like Massachusetts’ don’t quite address all of the factors that contribute to pay inequality: women still wind up taking more time away from the workforce for child-rearing and elder-care. And unconscious bias still holds us back from getting promotions or more mission-critical roles.

Still, the march to progress moves forward.

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