Equal Pay For Women, Sick Time For All Workers On The Way To Being Law In NJ

The Record ( — March 26, 2018

By Catherine Carrera and Nicholas Pugliese

Working women in New Jersey could finally have a shot at pay equity after lawmakers moved Monday to pass a measure that would ban employers from paying women less than men for "substantially similar work."

Employers would also be required to provide paid sick leave for full and part-time workers, under another measure that advanced and one that advocates say will help working women.

"Women have to work in order to put food on the table, it's simply not an economic choice anymore," said Deb Huber, president of the National Organization for Women of New Jersey.

Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat whose first executive order prohibited state agencies from asking job applicants for their wage history, is expected to sign the equal pay legislation as soon as this week. A bill to expand his first executive order to include was also approved by lawmakers.

A new legal standard

The Senate unanimously approved the pay equity bill, while the Assembly passed it 74-2. Assemblymen Michael Patrick Carroll and Jay Webber, both R-Morris, were the dissenting votes.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D - Teaneck, said that, under the bill, women and minorities "will be protected, will attain equality in their pay, which will give them the tools for equality throughout their lives."

Every state except Alabama and Mississippi has some form of equal-pay laws, but the legislation passed Monday would make New Jersey's laws among the strongest in the country.

It would allow victims of discrimination to recoup up to six years' worth of back pay, up from two under current law. Damages that are proven could be tripled, and the bill would permit lawsuits not just by women but by any group covered under the state's Law Against Discrimination, such as racial or sexual minorities.

It would also give employees a better chance at prevailing in pay-discrimination cases, said Andrea Johnson, senior council for state policy at the National Women's Law Center. Workers would have to prove they are being paid unfairly for "substantially similar" work, a change from the existing standard of "equal pay for equal work."

"There are a lot of courts that have interpreted equal work in a very narrow way to mean basically identical work," Johnson said. "So there's some language added to the law just to make sure that courts are doing a deeper analysis into the justification. We see too many cases thrown out for reasons that actually might be sex-based."

Women in New Jersey typically make 81 cents for every dollar paid to men, one penny higher than the national average, according to the women's law center.

The Senate also passed a bill, S-559, to make it unlawful to screen a job applicant based on their salary history, including prior wages, salaries or benefits. The bill expands on Murphy's first executive order, which prohibited state agencies from asking for an employee's pay history.

'We will make headlines'

Previous versions of the equal pay bill, which proposed unlimited back pay, were vetoed repeatedly by former Gov. Chris Christie. The Republican said the measure would require "an oversimplified comparison of wages" and criticized as "outrageous bureaucratic red tape" a provision requiring state contractors to report their compensation practices.

Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-Camden and a sponsor of the legislation, said the six-year cap on back pay was chosen in part because federal law requires businesses to hold onto records for seven years, so "it's well within the period of time we could do a further look-back."

The change has also helped get Republicans on board despite some lingering concern that the new rules could be too punitive for businesses. The bill has been approved by four legislative committees this month without a single dissenting vote.

"I'm really moved and I really appreciate my colleagues on the other side who realize the compassion and the compromise that was done on this," Lampitt said during a hearing last week. "We will make headlines across the nation that we respect women and we know what women want."

The bill is named in honor of Diane Allen, a longtime Republican senator from Burlington County who experienced pay discrimination during her career as a journalist. Allen championed equal pay legislation in the Legislature but did not see the law changed prior to her retirement earlier this year.

'Pro-worker policy'

The Assembly voted 50-24-1 for the bill that requires employers in the state to provide paid sick leave for full and part-time workers. Workers can earn one hour for every 30 hours worked, capping the annual benefit at 40 hours.

With more than 417,000 households in New Jersey headed by women, proponents of the bill, A-1827, say paid sick time off is a women's issue.

State legislation requiring paid sick time off was stalled in the Legislature for four years under former Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Murphy is likely to approve the bill, as paid sick leave has been one of his top priorities.

Lampitt, a primary sponsor of the paid sick leave bill, said making paid sick days a requirement will prevent workers from having to choose "between caring for their health and keeping their paychecks or jobs."

She said the bill will make the state a "leader in the fight for this common sense, pro-worker policy." There aren't federal laws that require employers to provide paid sick leave, but nine other states have pushed similar measures, including California.

There has been push-back on the bill, primarily from the healthcare industry and small business leaders.

Michele Siekerka, the president and CEO of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said the equal pay and earned sick leave bills "are important" but the organization is concerned about the impact to employers.

"The majority of New Jersey businesses already have sick time policies because they want to ensure a healthy and productive workforce. Those policies will need to satisfy the final requirements of a new law," Siekerka said.

Healthcare per diem workers have been carved out of the bill in amendments. Neil Eicher, the vice president of government relations and policy at the New Jersey Hospital Association, said the exemption for per diem health care workers recognizes those workers are higher hourly earners.

New Jersey Working Families and New Jersey Citizen Action have opposed the exemption, saying those positions are filled largely by women who will need to choose between a paycheck and their health needs.

Top Top | NJCA in the News | NJCA Homepage