OPINION
04/10/2018 09:00 am ET Updated Apr 10, 2018

New Jersey's Equal Pay Law Is The New Gold Standard

MOLLY RILEY via Getty Images

Today marks the day when America’s women have finally caught up to men. They had to work full time until today, April 10 — about 20 percent of the way into 2018 — to make, on average, the same amount that men made last year.

Equal Pay Day is meant to highlight the fact that women still make less than men in nearly every job, every industry and at every level of educational attainment. Yet, as we mark this symbolic day year after year, the gender wage gap hasn’t budged much over the last two decades. And although pay discrimination is technically illegal, the tools we give women to fight the gap ― like the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which mandated equal pay for equal work, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extended the time period women have to file complaints ― are pretty weak.

But one state just armed women with a weapon that could actually make a difference.

With a near unanimous vote at the end of last month, New Jersey lawmakers shot their state to the top of the pack when it comes to cracking down on the gender wage gap.

Gov. Phil Murphy has indicated that he’ll sign the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act (named for a retired state senator who herself experienced pay discrimination). Once he does, “we will have the strongest legislation in the country,” boasted Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, one of the main sponsors of the bill. Some of the new law’s strength will stem from the fact that victims of discrimination will be able to seek payback for up to six years of underpayment (the current cap is two years), and monetary damages in court will be tripled.

Lampitt crafted and pushed for the legislation “to actually move the needle” on the gender wage gap, she said. 

This seemingly small change in how states approach the gender wage gap comes with huge consequences.

The most notable part of bill, however, is a small change in wording that will have a big impact. Rather than requiring equal pay for equal work, as in most laws aimed at the gender wage gap, New Jersey will require equal pay for “substantially similar work.”

That means that if a New Jersey woman has a different title than her male colleague or even works in an entirely different department, but she performs the same kinds of tasks and shoulders the same levels of responsibility, she should be paid the same as he is.

“If you are doing a job substantially similar to … someone who works in another division, you should be able to compare yourself against that person,” Lampitt explained. “There might be a slight terminology change in a job title, but, really, what does a job title say?”

The comparisons aren’t arbitrary. Lampitt described some of the qualities that make people comparable even if they hold different positions: the amount of revenue they oversee, or how many employees they manage or how much operational oversight they wield. Minnesota, which requires that state government employees be paid the same for comparable jobs, analyzes people’s work based on how much knowledge, problem solving and responsibility is required, as well as the working conditions of particular jobs.

This seemingly small change in how states approach the gender wage gap comes with huge consequences. While women make less than men in basically any job they choose, nearly a third of the difference between what men and women make, on average, can be explained by the fact that they usually work in different jobs. Traditionally female occupations, such as teaching and nursing, employ 40 percent of all women and just 5 percent of men; traditionally male occupations, like carpentry and computer engineering, employ 44 percent of all men but just 6 percent of women. In order for there to be an equal gender split in the country’s many different occupations, half of all women or men would have to switch jobs.

Jobs where workers are more than half female pay 15 percent less than those that are more than half male.

This matters for the wage gap because men’s work simply pays better. High-skilled, predominantly male occupations pay nearly $10 more an hour, at the median, than high-skill occupations crowded by women. Jobs where workers are more than half female pay 15 percent less than those that are more than half male.

Here’s one telling example: housekeepers, who are mostly women, make 14 percent less than people who clean cars and equipment, who are mostly men. And yet they’re doing essentially the same tasks.

This is not just because women choose to work in lower-paid jobs, picking passion over pay. Over a half century, the data show that if women enter a particular job that pays well en masse, wages drop. When women started working in parks and camps, for example, pay fell 57 percentage points. When men took over the previously female-dominated job of computing, on the other hand, compensation shot up. 

So we simply can’t talk about the gender wage gap without talking about the fact that even when women do the same work that men do, they get paid less. Women aren’t self-selecting into lower pay; they are devalued no matter where they go. And it’s not just happening in separate fields like teaching and computing, but also within companies themselves. New Jersey’s law, which focuses not on comparing the exact same jobs but on ones that are basically the same, is designed to address that problem.

Women aren’t self-selecting into lower pay; they are devalued no matter where they go.

It’s worked before. In the late 1980s, state governments took up the cause of paying women equally for basically the same work, even if it was done in different positions than men. They dubbed it “comparable worth.” Between 1983 and 1992, those governments spent more than $527 million to lift women’s pay so that it was level with men in other jobs doing similar work, and in turn they eliminated 20 percent of the gender wage gap. At the time, a paper found that a national comparable worth policy would erase 28 percent of the gap. 

But the efforts faded out of sight by the 1990s. Even so, four states — Iowa, Minnesota, Montana and West Virginia — and Washington, D.C., still have comparable worth laws on the books. New Jersey will soon join this rarified group and, given the other strengths of its new law, stands ready to lead the pack.

Even better would be a law covering all American workers. The Fair Pay Act, which would require equal pay for comparable jobs, gets reintroduced every session of Congress. But its main champion in the Senate, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), retired in 2014, so now it has a sole sponsor in Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting representative in the House for the District of Columbia. These days, it rarely gets even a mention in conversations about the gender wage gap.

If we’re serious about ensuring that women are paid fairly, however, we can’t just stop at demanding equal pay for equal work, as important as that is. Women usually don’t end up in equal work in the first place. To actually close the gender wage gap and do away with annual Equal Pay Day commemorations, we’ll have to think bigger — and value the work women do wherever they are.

 

Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at The New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation.

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