With at most two weeks left in this year’s legislative session, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson held a press conference in Sacramento Monday to highlight her proposed bill that would bolster California’s old and toothless equal-pay law for women. Most striking was the support Jackson received from the California Chamber of Commerce and at least one Republican lawmaker, Assemblymember Kristin Olsen, a member of the Legislative Women’s Caucus. Not stated ​— ​but equally striking ​— ​is that the only organization to oppose Jackson’s bill is the California National Organization for Women, which objected Jackson failed to include pay protections based on race, sexual preference, or physical ability.

Ninety-five years after women got the right to vote ​— ​celebrated last week ​— ​Jackson questioned why the average California woman makes 84 cents for every dollar earned by her male counterpart. For African-American women, the pay gap is 64 cents, and for Latinas, the gap ​— ​at 44 cents ​— ​is even greater. All combined, Jackson stated, the wage gap cost California women $33 million a year in lost earnings.

California passed its first pay equity act in 1949, and since then, the law has focused narrowly on the question of equal pay for equal work. The problem is that many jobs are largely segregated by gender, rendering the equal pay for equal work equation moot. Instead, Jackson said, her bill would “broaden the focus” to ask whether women are paid less than men for doing jobs that are “substantially similar.” For example, she argued that janitors and housekeepers do “substantially similar” work. But housekeeping, which is predominantly done by women, is paid less than janitorial work, which is done mostly by men.

If Jackson’s bill ​— ​SB 358 ​— ​were passed, it would give the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement the responsibility to determine whether certain occupations should be deemed “substantially similar” and, if so, to enforce the protections of the bill. To date, no standards for substantial similarity exist. Jackson said gender-based wage discrimination is so obvious in some cases that such determinations are beside the point. She cited a recent study on gender-based pay disparities in the field of nursing, traditionally dominated by women. That study indicated male nurses earn $5,190 more a year than female nurses. “You don’t have to get into ‘substantial similarity’ to see how insidious these discrepancies are.”

Jackson’s bill would offer some protections to employees who inquire about how much other workers in the same company get paid. “You can’t fight what you don’t know about,” she said. Nothing in her bill would require employers to provide that wage information, but it would, she said, provide redress should an employee be fired or disciplined for seeking such data. The bill would, however, allow employers to pay more to employees based on experience, education, or productivity. To the extent that wage discrepancies exist, Jackson said, the burden of proof would fall to the employer to demonstrate such differences were not based on gender. Likewise, it would limit the ability of the same employer to justify pay differences based on where geographically the employees live and work.

Sharing the podium with Jackson was Republican Kristin Olsen, who commented, “It is striking that in 2015 we’re still having to have press conferences like this.” Jennifer Barrera of the Chamber of Commerce noted that the Chamber and Jackson “don’t agree on a whole lot of things,” but added she was “excited to support Jackson’s bill.” Like Olsen, Barrera said the bill would provide heightened accountability but without opening the floodgates to new litigation. That’s because under Jackson’s bill, complaints would be funneled through the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.

Jackson said her bill would become a template for other states if passed, providing the strongest protection against gender-based wage discrimination anywhere in the country. The National Organization for Women (NOW) submitted a letter of support stating much the same, but California NOW, while stating the bill “goes a long way in addressing the substantive inequities” in the existing equal pay act, also termed Jackson’s effort “woefully inadequate” and “simply unacceptable.”

Former CA NOW President Patricia Bellasalma objected that Jackson failed to include protections against wage discrimination based on “race, ethnicity, LGBTQ or disability status.” Such protections are boilerplate in current civil-rights legislation, she stated, and their inclusion would not have cost Jackson’s bill a single vote. Should Jackson’s bill pass, CA NOW intends to introduce legislation to include such changes the next legislative session. Jackson responded she had been attempting “to do what’s possible and not the ideal.” She added that gender discrimination was “the crux of the matter” and that once that was addressed, other forms would follow suit.

[UPDATE: August 27, 10 a.m.] According to a tweet from Nancy McFadden, the governor’s chief of staff, Brown will sign Jackson’s bill when it gets to his desk.


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