Plant worker

Kristy Westenberg works at Generac in Whitewater, Wisc., where she installs wiring harnesses on generators on Oct. 16, 2014

A bill prohibiting pay discrimination based on gender unanimously passed the Alabama House of Representatives last week, surprising even its sponsor who is now hopeful it will become law.

“It gives me great hope that the bill may pass this session,” said Rep. Adline Clarke, D-Mobile. “If it received the unanimous vote of the House I'm hoping that it will receive at least overwhelming if not unanimous support of the Senate.”

The bill passed the House 98-0 on Wednesday.

Clarke said that equal pay is an issue of fairness for women and all workers.

“In this day and time, our paychecks aren't just disposable income,” Clarke said. “In one and two income households, both paychecks are needed for necessary expenses ... But a significant number of households are headed by women who have all of those same expenses and need equal pay for equal work in order to make ends meet.”

The bill mandates equal pay “for equal work” except in cases where pay is based on seniority, merit, systems based on “quantity or quality of production” or any other factor that is not gender-based.

Employers who don’t pay men and women equally would have to pay affected employees who pursue civil action an amount equal to the lost wages.

Lilly Ledbetter, an equal pay advocate from Jacksonville, said that gender-based wage discrimination is an issue that follows women for the extent of their careers and beyond, since many retirement plans are based on wage. Ledbetter’s equal pay lawsuit against Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company led to the passing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act by Congress in 2009.

“These are critical things,” Ledbetter said. “And you work to support you and your family and provide for your family. It's so critical that people get equal pay."

According to the American Association of University Women, Alabama ranks 48th in the nation on gender pay equity with women earning around 73 percent of what men earn. The national average is around 80 percent. The median salary for full-time, year-round working women in Alabama was around $35,400 in 2017. For men it was around $48,200.

That difference, according to Ledbetter, affects the quality of life of women and their families, limiting the education and housing they can attain, the kind of food and medical care they can afford and more purchasing decisions that impact women and their families.

"When women are not compensated fairly and equitably that limits what they can buy for their families,” Ledbetter said. “And to me, if you were getting equal pay you could buy better food for your family. You might buy a bigger house. You might buy a better car. You definitely would be helping the economy in your community and the state. To me, it's just a win-win."

Clarke said she brought the bill up because she had heard complaints regarding equal pay from a few of her constituents. Currently, Alabama is one of two states that does not have equal pay legislation, along with Mississippi.  

Even in female-dominated industries, a pay gap still exists. According to the American Association of University Women the industry with the largest number of women employed is registered nurses with over 2 million female employees. The average median salary in that field is around $65,600 for women and $71,600 for men.  

Employees who want to bring a civil lawsuit against their employer under the bill have up to a year after they are made aware of the pay inequality to do so, Clarke said.

Rosemary Elebash, the Alabama state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, a small business advocacy group, originally opposed the bill, but worked with Clarke to make the bill more manageable for small businesses. The original bill called for employers of any size to maintain records on wages and job classifications for up to three years.

"If a business has 50 or fewer employees then those employees have to move around to just fill in where needs be on that particular day," Elebash said. "But if you have 50 or more employees then that business is likely to have an HR person on staff and that those employees have very specific job responsibilities."

Clarke’s original bill also included a provision that would prevent employers from retaliating against employees who pursued civil action under the bill, and a provision saying employers could not prohibit discussion about wages amongst employees. Both sections are absent in the bill as passed by the House.

Elebash said she and Clarke discussed removing the absent language due to the fact that federal law already says employers cannot prohibit discussion of wages or retaliate against employees over wage complaints.

Elebash said that in her experience equal pay discrepancies happen more often at large companies with more workers and that she has not had any complaints regarding pay discrepancies based on gender in her 16 years working with small businesses in Alabama.  

Clarke said that she believes that most businesses of all sizes do not discriminate in pay, but that this legislation is necessary to protect workers when it does happen.

“I believe that most businesses – small, medium and large – do the right thing by their employees. I truly believe that,” Clarke said. “I would prefer to think it is not prevalent and does not happen that often in Alabama, or anywhere in our nation, in this day and time. But my constituents say that it does happen.”

The bill has been referred to the Senate committee on governmental affairs, according to Clarke.