LePage gets Falmouth senator's bill to shrink wage gap

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AUGUSTA — Legislation that would make it easier for women and others to earn equal pay is sitting on Gov. Paul LePage’s desk, awaiting either his signature or veto.

State Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, who was a lead sponsor of the bill, said the goal is “to provide a mechanism that could lessen the pay disparity between men and women” in Maine.

Another bill sponsored by the District 25 senator – to enforce a state constitutional amendment to enact the ranked-choice voting rule that residents approved in November – will likely face a final vote in Augusta this week.

But Breen is not optimistic the amendment or a partial implementation of the measure will get enough votes in the Legislature.

Her equal pay bill, LD 1259 “An Act Regarding Pay Equality,” would make it illegal for an employer to ask a prospective employee how much they are earning or what they earned at their last job.

It would also give workers the right to discuss their individual wages or salaries without facing disciplinary action or retaliation by their employer.

While the bill doesn’t create an actual mandate for equal pay, it does make it easier to ensure that women and those with disabilities, for example, are paid “based on (their actual) market value, credentials and experience, not on their previous pay,” Breen said.

The bill had bipartisan support in the state Senate last week, Breen said, but the vote in the House was more along party lines, so it’s not veto proof.

Breen was still lobbying Monday for extra votes to support the bill in case the governor does veto it; she noted that “a similar measure gained bipartisan support and was signed by the Republican governor of Massachusetts last year.”

She said the bill would apply to public- and private-sector employers and would essentially “add one more question to a list of questions they should not ask a prospective employee” in a job interview.

The law would be enforced by the Maine Human Rights Commission, Breen said.

Maine women earn an average of 78 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to a recent report by the National Partnership for Women and Families. That’s an average annual wage gap of about $10,000, according to Breen.

She said Maine women who are employed full time lose nearly $3 billion every year because of the gap.

Breen called the situation an albatross around women’s necks that often haunts them from their first job out of college to when they’re ready to retire.

In her research, Breen said she found that “even just a year out of college, women often earn 20 percent less than their male peers.” And, she said, that leads to half a million dollars less set aside for retirement, which is why women are three times more likely than men to end up in poverty after their working years are done.

Questions about previous wages perpetuate the gap, she said.

“The answer to that question can result in a low-ball salary offer (that’s) well below market value,” Breen said. “By basing future salaries on previous wages, employers perpetuate the earnings divide between the sexes.”

She said the June 20 vote of support in the state Senate “shows that (Maine) is serious about ending wage discrimination, whether it is caused by explicit bias or unintentional but widespread business practices.”

“Workers should be paid a market-based salary that reflects their education, experience, qualifications, credentials and work ethic, regardless of whether a previous job underpaid them because of their gender or any other reason.”

“If this bill becomes law,” Breen added, “it will be a victory not only for the hundreds of thousands of Maine women who are underpaid, but for all workers that deserve fair compensation.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

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