Equal pay becomes law in New Jersey, setting a 'national standard' for wage practices
Employers will soon be banned from paying women less than their male counterparts under a so-called equal pay bill signed Tuesday by Gov. Phil Murphy as part of an effort to close the gender wage gap.
Murphy's signing of the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act represents a victory for women in a broader movement against workplace discrimination and harassment. And he said the law will be the strongest of its kind, setting a "national standard" that sends a message to employers, because they could be forced to pay six years of back wages.
"For those who thought they could get away with paying a woman less just because they could, today is your wake-up call," Murphy said.
The bill, A-1, had strong bipartisan support in the Legislature, but an earlier version was rejected by former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, over technical concerns that it didn't "meaningfully improve" New Jersey's anti-discrimination laws, although he said he "unequivocally" supported the intent.
But Murphy made equal pay a top priority in his campaign to bring greater diversity to state leadership. On the day he took office he signed his first executive order, prohibiting state agencies from looking at a job applicant's pay history.
Three months later he was joined by Lilly Ledbetter, the namesake of federal equal pay law, and female lawmakers during a bill-signing ceremony at the Trenton War Memorial. They applauded his signing of a measure they said was long overdue.
"You guys get it now. You want us women to earn equal pay, because you can help us spend it," Ledbetter said, to laughs.
Female workers in New Jersey typically are paid 81 cents for every dollar a man makes, a penny more than the national average, according to the National Women's Law Center. The disparity is greater for minority women, the center said. Murphy said that because of the wage gap, women in New Jersey lose $32.5 billion a year in wages and economic power.
Allen, a Republican from Burlington County, recently retired from the Senate after 20 years. Before her legislative career, Allen was a television anchor, and she said she experienced pay discrimination in that job. She sat in the front row during the bill-signing ceremony and was applauded by lawmakers for her work on the bill.
What it does
All but two states have some type of equal-pay law.
The Diane Allen law, which takes effect July 1, amends the state's Law Against Discrimination to ban employers from paying different rates for "substantially similar" work. If they do pay a different rate, the employer must demonstrate that the difference is based on seniority, merit or "legitimate, bona fide factors other than sex," according to the bill.
It also will prohibit employers from retaliating against employees "requesting, disclosing or discussing information" about compensation of current and former workers, and require public contractors to provide general information about their workers’ demographics and pay.
Perhaps most crucially, the law will allow for up to six years of back pay for wage discrimination, three times as long as the two-year cap under the federal Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Proven damages could be tripled under the new law, and lawsuits will be allowed by any group covered under the state’s discrimination law, such as racial or sexual minorities.
Despite its strong and bipartisan support, the measure has critics. The New Jersey Business and Industry Association said that while it supports the intent of the bill, it maintains concerns over provisions of the law.
"The reasons why pay equity exists in some instances are very complex and are void of discriminatory reasons," Michele Siekerka, the association's president and chief executive officer, said in a statement. "As such, we must be mindful of aggressive legal efforts to capitalize on the six-year lookback period, without merit, which will come at great expense to unsuspecting businesses."
Murphy dismissed suggestions that the law would have a negative effect on the business community.
"The companies who claim this is anti-business have missed a meeting," he said. "The world has changed."
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