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Equal pay refresh passes House

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(The Center Square) – Women in Pennsylvania may soon benefit from new protections that prioritize wage transparency and change the way maternity leave impacts earning potential.

And, it would apply to hourly minimum wage workers too.

The legislation approved along party lines in the House of Representatives on Monday would amend the Equal Pay Act to ban sex and race discrimination, as well as mandate equivalent pay for “comparable” work.

Employees who take family or medical leave wouldn’t lose seniority designed to keep their pay on par with their colleagues, either.

It’s an important distinction for working mothers, said bill co-sponsor Rep. Jenn O’Mara, D-Springfield, who earn 70 cents for every dollar paid to working fathers on average.

“This creates the harsh economic reality for some families that it makes more sense financially for a mother to sacrifice her career in order to save on child care expenses,” O’Mara said.

In 2022, federal data shows women in Pennsylvania earned a median weekly salary of $981, roughly 18 percentage points lower than their male counterparts. The analysis does not include adjustments for job skills, education level and specialization. It’s the smallest gap recorded since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking in 1997.

The Women’s Law Project points to racial disparity, too. As a whole, women in Pennsylvania make 79 cents for every dollar paid to men. That rate falls to 68 cents for Black women and 56 cents for Latina women. Asian women, the organization said, earn 81 cents, respectively.

Lower wages among women of color should surprise no one, said Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia.

“This is despite doing the same tasks, performing the same jobs, and sometimes doing them much better than our counterparts,” she said in a statement published Monday. “This is a step toward economic justice.”

Critics, however, argue that when adjusted for differences in experience, age, education attained and employment breaks for family leave, the gap is just 7 cents for each dollar earned.

“The difference between the unadjusted and adjusted pay gap is more indicative of the choices men and women make about their careers and their priorities,” said Rep. Barbara Gleim, R-Carlisle.

She noted the Department of Labor and Industry has not fielded a single complaint for wage discrimination over the last 20 years, largely thanks to the strength of the existing protections.

There’s also the cost of the bill. Employers would pay a minimum of $2,500 and maximum of $5,000 per worker per day the violation occurred. According to Gleim, the total price tag for 20 violations would skyrocket from $4,000 to $200,000.

The Department of Labor Industry estimates it will cost $1.2 million each year to pay 12 new investigators to enforce the law, as well as invest $2 million into a database and $200,000 each year to maintain it.

Rep. Joe D’Orsie, R-York, said small businesses can’t afford the attorney fees necessary to defend frivolous claims filed by disgruntled workers. He said although both employers and employees deserve protection, the new penalties will stifle economic growth and speed up population loss.

“We can’t be competitive as a state and pass laws like this simultaneously,” he said.