The Massachusetts House on Thursday passed a bill aimed at ensuring that women are paid equally for equal work.
“Some of us have been working on this bill since 1998,” said state Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst. “This is a happy day that we are passing it.”
The bill passed by a unanimous vote of 158-0, amid cheers in the House chamber.
Massachusetts was the first state to pass a law requiring men and women be paid the same amount for comparable work, in 1945. The bill that was passed Thursday, H.4509, updates and clarifies the law. The bill received support from both business groups and women’s rights groups, after earlier drafts underwent significant revisions to ensure that the bill advances the cause of equal pay without unduly hurting businesses.
Several lawmakers noted the long journey for women to gain equality in the workplace. “When I vote today, I have the great sense I’ll be standing on the shoulders of and giving thanks to the many feminists who have toiled for decades to bring us to where we are today,” said state Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown.
The bill clarifies and updates the definition of “comparable work,” and defines what factors can be used to determine salaries. The bill would make it illegal for employers to prevent employees from discussing their salaries. The bill also prohibits employers from asking job applicants about their salary history during an interview. The bill protects employers from equal pay lawsuits for three years if they complete self-evaluations and take steps to move toward pay equity.
The House version has the backing of business groups, as well as women’s rights advocates.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, called it a matter of “basic fairness” that if a man and a woman are doing the same job, they get paid the same amount. “In this day and age … for us to still be talking about this is wrong,” DeLeo said. “And this gives us the opportunity to rectify it.”
DeLeo said he hopes if enough states pass equal pay laws, eventually the law can be strengthened at a federal level.
State Rep. Jay Livingstone, D-Boston, an employment lawyer, said, “It is humbling that we can sit in the chamber and play a role in chipping away at the inequities of our society, as we’re doing today.”
Livingstone called it a “waste in the economy” when half of the workforce feels undervalued.
According to a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women working full time in Massachusetts earn 81 cents for every dollar men earn.
The Senate passed its own version of the bill in January. It will now go to a committee of House-Senate negotiators, who must negotiate a final version of the bill and pass it before the session ends July 31.
Attorney General Maura Healey issued a statement after the bill’s passage saying the bill “makes much-needed updates to the law to reflect our modern economy and carefully balances the needs of workers and the business community.”