Current laws in Oregon make it illegal to pay people of opposite sex different wages to do the same job. There are also federal protections. However, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) conducted a study between 2011 and 2014 and found that women in Oregon make an average 79 cents for every dollar a man makes.
Several lawmakers in the Oregon Legislature have decided that the current laws are not enough. Sen. Diane Rosenbaum (D-Portland) and Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson (D-Portland) are the chief sponsors of HB 2006 and HB 2007, two bills that would offer additional safeguards for fair pay to all Oregon workers.
HB 2006 would make it a civil rights violation for an employer to pay workers who are not the same gender, but do the same job, different wages. There would be exceptions for employers who pay their workers differently based on seniority, merit, experience or job performance.
BOLI Commissioner Brad Avakian testified in support of the bill. He said since most people think of equal pay as a civil rights issue, it makes sense to put the law “where it should have been all along.”
Andrew Lewinter, an employment attorney based in Eugene, says the legislation would make it easier for employees to ensure their fair pay. Right now they would have to prove that the discrepancy between their pay and another employee’s pay was because the employer was discriminating against them based on sex. If the bill passed, Lewinter says the discriminatory intent would be “presumed by evidence of the discriminatory act.” The fact that their pay was different would be proof that the employer was violating the law.
Opposition to HB 2006 has come mainly from Republican legislators and organizations like Oregon Dairy Farmers and the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association. ORLA CEO Steve McCoid says the bill has “more exceptions than you can shake a stick at,” and that it is a “solution looking for a problem.”
McCoid says the current statute has not been used, so a new law isn’t needed. He also worries the law would put a burden on employers by making them have to prove innocence, instead of the employee having to prove that they are guilty.
If HB 2006 were to pass, employers who violated the law could be forced to rehire employees and potentially give them back pay. They could also be forced to pay damages. Employees would have to file a complaint either with BOLI or in state court.
Lewinter says HB 2006 is needed in Lane County, because the problem is still out there. At the very least, he says the Legislature would be sending a message to employers saying this is something they should not do.
Lauri Trieger of Family Forward Oregon says the group is holding an Equal Pay (Un)Happy Hour in Eugene April 14 to “bring attention to the persistent gender wage gap in this country and to provide an opportunity for people who want to be involved in making change to learn more about our organization and connect with one another.”
Another bill, HB 2007, is tied closely to equal pay legislation. It would make it illegal for employers to take disciplinary action against employees who talk about or disclose their wages. It would only apply to an employee’s own wage — disclosing other workers’ wages would not be permitted.
Lewinter says he’s never had a client say they were disciplined for talking about his or her wage. But, he has heard many people say they don’t know what other people are paid because they are not allowed to talk about it.
Avakian of BOLI submitted written testimony to the Legislature stating that this bill would protect open communication among employees.
“It is much harder to find out if you are being paid fairly if you can’t talk to your coworkers,” he wrote.
HB 2007 would have penalties similar to HB 2006: back pay, re-hiring and injunctive relief. It would also require that an employee file a complaint with BOLI or in state court.
HB 2006 had a public hearing in the House Business and Labor Committee in February. It is still in Committee. HB 2007 passed through the House largely on a party line and is now in the Senate Workforce Committee.
Equal Pay (Un)Happy Hour is 5 pm April 14 at Turtles Bar and Restaurant. For more info go to wkly.ws/1zc, kids welcome.