REDEFINING EQUAL PAY FOR EQUAL WORK

Reporters

Earlier this week, California’s governor signed an equal pay bill into law that some commentators are calling the toughest equal pay law in the country.  California’s prior equal pay law made it unlawful for an employer to pay an employee less than the wages paid to the opposite sex, but required the differently paid employees to work “in the same establishment” and perform “equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility” under similar working conditions.  While the equal pay law applies to both men and women, laws of this kind are most frequently invoked by women paid less than their male counterparts.

Among other things, the new law gets rid of the requirement that the differently paid employees work in the same establishment.  It also eliminates the provision that the work performed must be “equal.”  Now, employees of one sex must be paid the same as employees of another sex “for substantially similar work, when viewed as a composite of skill, effort, and responsibility.”  Employers found to have paid employees unequally based on sex are liable for the balances of the wages, an equal amount as liquidated damages, and attorneys’ fees and costs.  California workers who believe they have been retaliated against for complaining about unequal pay are also authorized to file suit and recover reinstatement, lost wages and benefits, and equitable relief.

One of the driving forces behind the bill was that previously it was very difficult for California’s workers to successfully prove an equal pay claim.  Bill drafters felt “[t]o eliminate the gender wage gap in California, the state’s equal pay provisions and laws regarding wage disclosures must be improved.”

Iowa’s equal pay law, enacted on July 1, 2009, is similar to California’s old version.  Under Iowa law, employers may not pay wages to an employee that are “less than the rate paid to other employees who are employed within the same establishment for equal work on jobs, the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions.”  Notably different is that Iowa’s law does not just apply to employees of the opposite sex.  Rather, under Iowa law, employers may not discriminate in pay on the basis of age, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, or disability (characteristics protected by the Iowa Civil Rights Act).

Most of the appellate litigation involving Iowa’s equal pay act has focused on whether the law should be applied retroactively.  That is, whether employers can be held liable for paying employees unequally prior to the enactment of the law.  Iowa’s state and federal courts uniformly answered the question, “no.”  This past March, the Iowa Supreme Court gave a final answer, holding that Iowa’s equal pay law applies only to conduct after July 1, 2009.

The lack of any other published case law on Iowa’s equal pay act, despite it being state law for over six years, indicates that in Iowa, like California, proving unequal pay on the basis of a protected characteristic is very difficult.  While Iowa tends to be ahead of many other states on civil rights issues (i.e. marriage equality), historically the Iowa legislature has been slow to amend laws providing rights to employees.  We aren’t holding our breath for any major changes to Iowa’s equal pay act soon, but continue to work at protecting Iowa’s workers under the existing law.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/62055881@N05/5646757752″>Frontier Justice</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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