Business groups want wage discrimination bill with teeth to be defanged

Steve Ahlquist

The Senate Labor Committee started Wednesday’s hearing on two wage discrimination bills with only two Senators in attendance, Senator Gayle Goldin (Democrat, District 3, Providence) the sponsor of one of the bills, and Senator Paul Fogarty (Democrat, District 23, Burrillville, Glocester), who chairs the committee. Despite missing four Senators, Goldin introduced her bill and some 12 people testified in favor. Only two people, lobbying for business interests, testified against the bill.

Goldin’s bill, S2475, “would provide protections against employer imposed wage differentials based upon the race or color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, age, or country of ancestral origin of the employee. The act would also provide that where wage differentials do exist, employers must justify said differentials based on bona fide factors other than race or color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, age, or country of ancestral origin. The act would further provide that an aggrieved party shall be entitled to recover any unpaid wages and/or benefits, compensatory damages, and liquidated damages in an amount up to three times the amount of unpaid wages and/or benefits owed, an award of appropriate equitable relief, including reinstatement of employment, fringe benefits and seniority rights.”

Over the course of the hearing, Senators Frank Lombardi (Democrat, District 26, Cranston) and Frank Lombardo (Democrat, District 25, Johnston) joined the committee in progress, but Senators Senator Mark Gee (District 35, North Kingstown, Narragansett) and Frank Ciccone (Democrat, District 7, North Providence) were no-shows.

“Instead of talking about equal pay we are talking about comparable work,” said Goldin, introducing the bill. “Equal pay, which comes from our original 1956 law on this, was really at a time when there were lists of what a job would pay a man and what a job would pay a woman. This [bill] is bringing us into the modern world and realizing that we might not all have the same job title but we have very similar job requirements and responsibilities and ensure that we can compare those and ensure that women are paid equally under those standards.

“This is not unusual. It’s what Massachusetts has and has been doing for many, many years as well as ten other states,” said Goldin.

Georgia Hollister-Isman, state director for Rhode Island Working Families spoke in favor of the legislation.

Elizabeth Suever is a lobbyist for the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, and opposes the legislation. “We do support women making the same as men,” said Suever, smiling. “That’s not what our basis of opposition is today. We’re concerned with a lot of the provisions in this bill and what we think they might do to Rhode Island’s business climate.”

Aside from some extra exceptions for employers that would allow them to pay some people more for the same work, such as an increased amount of travel or more training and experience, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce is worried that the legislation “would incentivize lawsuits against employers” and allow aggrieved employees to collect treble damages, which in turn may force companies to pay out even when they believe they could win such lawsuits, because paying out will be cheaper than hiring a lawyer to defend themselves.

Suever also called for a uniformity clause, which would prevent cities and towns in Rhode Island from promulgating their own laws to protect employees from wage discrimination. Anti-labor groups often introduce “uniformity” or preemption laws. I wrote about them here. Last year, in eleventh hour negotiations over the paid family leave law, a uniformity clause was inserted.

No other state in New England has passed even one preemptive labor law.

Rhode Island has passed two.

If the General Assembly adds a “uniformity” provision to this fair wage act, Rhode Island will have three such laws on the books, effectively shutting down municipal efforts at fair and just wages, again.

John Simmons, representing the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) and the Rhode Island Business Coalition, spoke against the legislation, finding himself in agreement with all of Suever’s points above.

John Wesley, director of policy and advocacy at the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (RICADV) spoke in favor of the legislation.

Victoria Strang, the director and lead organizer of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty, spoke in favor of the legislation.

Gail Harvey, a lobbyist for Rhode Island National Organization for Women (RI NOW), spoke in favor of the legislation.

Lisa Ranglin, president of the Rhode Island Black Business Association, testified in favor of the bill.

Marissa Janson from the Rhode Island Council for Human Rights spoke in support of the legislation.

Cherie Cruz, from the ACLU of Rhode Island, spoke in favor of the legislation.

Michelle McGaw, a resident of Portsmouth, spoke in favor of the legislation.

Melissa Jenkins, a resident of Cranston, spoke in favor of the legislation.

Nancy St Germain, a resident of Warwick, spoke in favor of the legislation.

Kristina Fox, community resource coordinator at the Rhode Island Food Bank, spoke in favor of the legislation.

Douglas Hall, director of economic and fiscal policy at the Economic Progress Institute (EPI), spoke in favor of the legislation.

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