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Gender Pay Equity Gets New Life in WA Legislature

On Wednesday, a Washington State Senate committee held a public hearing in Olympia on two bills that address the gender pay gap in the state. (SounderBruce/Flickr)
On Wednesday, a Washington State Senate committee held a public hearing in Olympia on two bills that address the gender pay gap in the state. (SounderBruce/Flickr)
January 11, 2018

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- At its current rate, the pay gap for women in Washington state compared to men won't close until 2070. As the new legislative session begins, hopes are high that 2018 is the year lawmakers update the state's equal-pay laws and close that gap much sooner.

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Labor and Commerce heard public testimony on Senate Bill 5140. It would require companies to have job-related reasons for pay differences - such as education or experience - and access to career opportunities like promotions.

Marilyn Watkins, policy director with the Economic Opportunity Institute, who testified at the Senate hearing, said women working full-time in Washington on average make $14,000 less than men each year.

"That has a big impact, not only on those women, but on their families, on their children's ability to succeed and thrive, and on all of our communities,” Watkins said. "Our whole economy is brought down when women are being paid less."

Watkins added the gap becomes larger over the course of a woman's life, eventually affecting her retirement. And the gap is even greater for women of color.

In each of the past three years, the state Senate has nixed equal-pay bills. But now, under Democratic control, they might have a better chance of passing. The #MeToo movement could add steam to the issue of gender discrimination as well.

SB 5140 would also prohibit retaliation against employees for asking about wages. It would shift the burden of proof in discrimination cases from workers to employers, who would have to demonstrate the business reasons for pay differences.

Watkins said this is about more than the pay gap. She said workplace discrimination is pervasive, and described a well-known scene in which a woman presents an idea and has it ignored, only to hear a man present the same idea and get recognition for it.

"Women's contributions simply seem to be invisible, particularly to men, sometimes also to other women,” she said. "So, I think we really want to start highlighting these kinds of things, making people more conscious of them. And hopefully, that's going to be part of a real cultural change, that'll go along with the legal change to really make a difference."

Wednesday's Senate hearing also included Senate Bill 5555, which would stop an employer from asking about the wage history of a potential employee.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA