By: Rep. Susan R. Donovan (D-Dist. 69, Bristol, Portsmouth) and Kelly Nevins, Chief Executive Officer, Women’s Fund of Rhode Island

March 24 is Equal Pay Day, symbolizing how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year.  This is based on all full-time working women compared to men in the U.S.  Other dates further into the year highlight how much longer women of color have to work before they achieve “equal pay.” No matter what race or ethnicity, education level or number of years of experience, women today make at least 18% less than their male counterparts.

We’ve been hearing a lot about the “she-cession” in which women, far more than men, have lost earnings. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how the work performed by  primarily by women, and particularly Black and brown women, has long been and continues to be undervalued, even while we call them “heroes” for working essential jobs. Prior to the pandemic, 40% of women nationwide were the main breadwinners for their families; 80% of Black women were the primary earners for their families. Further studies show that eliminating the pay gap can add trillions to global GDP AND reduce poverty by 50% in the US.

Why does the wage gap exist when we have laws like the Equal Pay Act of 1963? Many courts have interpreted the law broadly, creating legal loopholes in which employers can justify almost any reason to pay people with similar jobs differently without much scrutiny from the courts. This makes it difficult for workers to challenge unfair pay.

This is why we are working together for passage of the Fair Pay Act for Rhode Island.

The Fair Pay Act will update and strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and provide additional protections against pay discrimination. This bill will prevent employers from relying on salary history to set pay when hiring and require employers to disclose salary ranges for open positions when asked. Importantly, it clarifies reasons why an employer CAN pay an employee differently than someone else doing a substantially similar job. Finally, the bill incentivizes employers to regularly review their pay practices so they can root out unconscious bias in pay.

Passing this law would put gender-based wage discrimination on an equal footing with discrimination based on race or ethnicity and help to narrow the gender wage gap. When many of the women who have lost their jobs or had to care for family instead of working through this pandemic come back to work, they should not have to worry about whether they are being paid fairly. And when they do, Rhode Island’s economy will be stronger for it. Please ask your legislators to support the Fair Pay Act.

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