Equal pay proposal returns to changed R.I. House

By Patrick Anderson
Journal Staff Writer

Progressive Rhode Island Democrats released a “Women’s Economic Justice Platform” on Wednesday that includes the latest effort to erase the gender pay gap.

PROVIDENCE — As the number of women elected to the General Assembly hits a new high and the House prepares to vote on enshrining abortion rights in state law, progressive Rhode Island Democrats released a “Women’s Economic Justice Platform” on Wednesday that includes the latest effort to erase the gender pay gap.

“If we are really serious about economic equality for women and people of color, if we are serious about supporting working families, it is far past time for ending the practices that perpetuate the wage gap,” said Rep. Susan Donovan, House sponsor of the pay equity bill.

Last year’s version of Donovan’s pay equity bill was rewritten — some said gutted — by House leadership in the waning days of the legislative session and died when it could not be reconciled with the Senate version. Hard feelings about the collapse of the bill helped open a schism in the Democratic caucus and opposition to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.

This year’s pay equity bill has the same lead sponsors — Donovan in the House and Sen. Gayle Goldin in the Senate — and the same basic elements as last year’s bill, which was modeled on Massachusetts’ wage gap law.

The bill would expand existing Rhode Island anti-discrimination laws, make it easier for workers to sue for unequal pay and ban employers from asking prospective hires their salary history. Forcing job applicants to list their prior wages has been blamed for perpetuating the cycle of paying women less than men.

The bill also makes it illegal for employers to muzzle workers from discussing their compensation packages.

In addition to gender discrimination, the bill also seeks to protect workers from being shortchanged on compensation based on race, “religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, age, or country of ancestral origin.”

Most controversially last year, the bill would make it illegal for employers to pay women less than men for “comparable work,” rather than having to prove they were paid less for the same work.

Businesses and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce argued “comparable work” was too vague and could lead to opportunistic lawsuits.

The primary change made to this year’s bill “streamlines” the potential damages and penalties that violating companies could face to make it less confusing, Donovan said.

Like last year, the pay gap bill is supported by Gov. Gina Raimondo, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and General Treasurer Seth Magaziner.

Neither the House nor Senate has scheduled a hearing for the pay equity bills yet.

The push for legislation to end the gender pay gap comes as the number of women in the General Assembly is set to hit a new high.

When June Speakman, who won Tuesday’s special election, is sworn in next week to replace Rep. Kenneth Marshall, she’ll be the 27th woman in the House, the most at least since the chamber was shrunk to 75 members. There are 16 women in the 38-member state Senate, the most ever.

The pay equity bill is among a dozen pieces of legislation in the Women’s Economic Justice platform, including the most recent bid, by Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell and Sen. Ana Quezada, to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2023 (and then index it to inflation).

Other bills in the package would:

– Eliminate the lower tipped minimum wage

– Double the length of Temporary Caregiver Insurance paid leave to eight weeks

– Increase child-care reimbursement rates

– Raise the minimum wage for health-care workers to $15 an hour

– Extend vocational education for CCRI students

There are also nine bills recommended by Rep. Teresa Tanzi’s sexual harassment task force last year.

The Economic Justice platform launch was held by a coalition of advocacy, union and liberal groups, including the Working Families Party and Economic Progress Institute.