Working women in New Jersey could soon have one of the nation's strongest laws guaranteeing pay equity after lawmakers moved Monday to pass a measure that would ban employers from paying them less than men for "substantially similar work."
The legislation, which would give women and minorities a better chance at prevailing in pay-discrimination cases and increase the damages they could win, now heads to the desk of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who has signaled he will sign it.
“This is a very emotional day for me, knowing the fact that we are making history here in New Jersey, history for the United States,” said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-Camden, who has led the fight for the legislation along with Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck. “This bill will give our daughters a better chance — a better chance of a future and equal pay and to be equally respected.”
The Assembly also advanced a separate bill that would require employers to provide paid sick leave for full- and part-time workers. That measure, which has yet to clear the Senate, has also been heralded as a long-overdue ion for working women.
"Women have to work in order to put food on the table," said Deb Huber, president of the National Organization for Women of New Jersey. "It’s simply not an economic choice anymore."
A new legal standard
Every state except Alabama and Mississippi has some form of equal-pay laws, but few are as strong as those proposed for New Jersey.
The bill passed Monday, A-1, would allow victims of discrimination to recoup up to six years’ worth of back pay, up from two under current law. Damages that are proved 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.
Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, one of only two lawmakers to vote against the measure, called it a "nightmare" that would lead to endless litigation.
“The simple fact of the matter is we’re going to be seeing people suing all the time because there’s no downside," he said.
The Senate unanimously approved the pay equity bill, while the Assembly passed it 74-2. Carroll and Jay Webber, both R-Morris, were the dissenting votes.
'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.
Lampitt 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.
“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 before her retirement this year.
Also Monday, the Assembly voted 50-24 with one abstention for a 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.
Similar legislation requiring paid sick time off was stalled in the Legislature for years under Christie. Murphy is likely to approve the bill, after making paid sick leave a central campaign pledge.
Lampitt, who also sponsored 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 is no federal law requiring employers to provide paid sick leave, but nine other states have pushed similar measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Resistance to the bill has come primarily from the health care 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 could negatively affect employers.
"The majority of New Jersey businesses already have sick time policies, because they want to ensure a healthy and productive workforce," she said. "Those policies will need to satisfy the final requirements of a new law."
Health care per diem workers were carved out of the bill at the last minute. 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 that those workers are higher hourly earners.
But New Jersey Working Families and New Jersey Citizen Action, both liberal advocacy groups, have opposed the exemption, saying those positions are filled largely by women, who will need to choose between a paycheck and their health needs.