Legislator says transparency will help narrow gender-based pay gap

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A state Senate panel heard a bill Wednesday aiming to bridge the state’s gender-based pay gap before tabling a similar proposal.

Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, introduced the Montana Paycheck Transparency Act, or Senate Bill 217. The bill aims to address pay disparities between male and female workers by eliminating workplace policies that prohibit discussion of compensation.

During the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee’s hearing on the bill, Sands characterized her proposal as one more step toward achieving the goals set forth in Montana’s first-in-the-nation equal pay law, passed in 1919.

“We don’t see the type of blatant discrimination that many of you might think as pay discrimination,” Sands told the committee. “There are a lot of structural problems that contribute to the fact that women continue in every single field to earn, on the average, less than their male counterparts.”

Montana’s Commissioner of Labor and Industry, Pam Busey, endorsed the act, telling the committee that women on average make 68.5 percent of the median earnings for men in the state. She also noted that the bill doesn’t explicitly address wage discrimination, focusing instead on wage transparency.

“We tried very much to target something that there’s a lot of data about, and that’s that women don’t negotiate pay like their male counterparts,” she said, “and being able to just be transparent, we have the data that demonstrates how helpful that is to women. We have that data based on state pay plans and collective bargaining agreements.”

The Paycheck Transparency Act would also bar employers from factoring a prospective employee’s previous salaries into their hiring decisions.

The committee did not immediately take action on the bill.

SENATE BILL 148, dubbed the Montana Pay Equity Act, was tabled later in the committee’s Wednesday meeting.

Sponsored by Sen. Sue Malek, D-Missoula, the bill proposed language prohibiting pay discrimination based on gender, while allowing variations in wage due to seniority, merit systems and commission-based salaries.

It also sought to strengthen requirements that the Montana Department of Labor and Industry maintain work classifications and corresponding pay schedules based on skill requirements, available labor supply and other factors in occupational groups dominated by either sex. Those standards cut both ways, with language also requiring that men be paid equal compensation to women for equal work.

The bill also included language similar to Sands’ — prohibiting private employers from keeping wages secret among employees and barring wage history as a hiring consideration.

The committee voted to table the bill on an 8-2 vote.

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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