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June 5, 2024

Progress on state wage transparency bill stalls

Photo | Courtesy of Bisousweet Confections Bisousweet Confections 20,000-square-foot Leominster manufacturing facility

After the Legislature passed a bill last October aimed at reducing gender and demographic wage gaps in Massachusetts, Democrats have not coalesced around the the largely similar texts, which have instead fallen into a seven-months-long black hole. But a leading advocate hopes the long delay will prove to be just a "wrinkle in time," after a change in House personnel.

The so-called wage transparency bill (H 4109) moved last fall at a breakneck pace, by Beacon Hill standards. Released from the Labor and Workforce Development Committee in September, it cleared the House on Oct. 4 (148-8) and the Senate on Oct. 19 (38-1).

The bill boasted a diverse cast of supporters, emerging as one of the five selected priorities of the Women's Legislative Caucus, and backed by business group Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the Mass. AFL-CIO umbrella union, and the Mass. Municipal Association. While the bills seems stuck in neutral, supporters say the appetite for it remains strong.

"Everybody wants this bill done," Megan Driscoll of the Wage Equity Now Coalition told the News Service. "The House wants it, the Senate wants it, business wants it, advocates want it, women and people of color want it. People want it in Massachusetts. Never in a time have we had so much momentum."

She added: "Every day that we don't pass this bill, there are thousands of women and people of color that continue to be paid less for those jobs that they're in. And we know that it's an economic issue for Massachusetts, and one that needs to be addressed."

In addition to requiring employers with 25 or more employees to post pay ranges alongside job openings, the bill would have employers with 100 or more employees file copies of their federally-required equal employment data report with the Secretary of State's office.

Sen. Paul Feeney said during debate on the bill that the reporting requirement would help Bay State officials measure wage gaps in order to understand the causes and take future action.

Last October's action followed a call for action from former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, who is also a member of the WEN Coalition. Murphy told the committee at a public hearing that she had a "very simple" ask regarding two separate pieces of legislation on the agenda.

"I ask you to please combine all these bills into one wage equity bill, and report the merged bill out of committee favorably, and as soon as possible," Murphy urged on May 9, 2023.

She asked for haste because of a "longstanding inequity in earnings for women and people of color" that stems from racial and gender wage gaps in Massachusetts. The combined bill, she said, would help address "systemic biases in starting salaries" and "pay disparities for particular job titles."

Merged and engrossed, the House and Senate bills were sent to a conference committee, though the differences between the House and Senate texts are slim. The transparency measure has now been tied up in private talks longer than any other bill at this point in the term.

Some advocates and lawmakers say the delay in reaching resolution could have resulted from a shift in the House's negotiating team. Rep. Josh Cutler, who co-chaired both the wage transparency talks and the Joint Labor Committee, resigned in February to take a job in the Healey administration.

"Sometimes the conference process can take longer, especially when you have a shift in the legislators who have been part of the bill's process," Sen. Rebecca Rausch, a cosponsor of one of the original bills, said Thursday. She added that "all sorts of things can lead to a longer deliberation in the conference process."

More than two months elapsed before Speaker Ronald Mariano appointed Rep. Danielle Gregoire, the House's First Division chair, to take Cutler's place at the negotiating table.

Since then, Gregoire told the News Service, she has been in touch with top Senate negotiator Sen. Patricia Jehlen. And Driscoll, a member of the Wage Equity Now Coalition, said that her group had met with Gregoire following her appointment.

Gregoire declined further comment, citing the confidential custom of conference talks. Jehlen also said that conversations were ongoing.

"We have met with our colleagues in the house multiple times and have had many productive discussions with them. A great deal of work has been done on reconciling the bills and we continue to be in touch with our house colleagues on finding a resolution," Jehlen said in a statement.

As for what's actually before them on the conference table, Driscoll said the differences seem "quite small." There is at least one key change, though: whether the provisions of the new equity law would apply to much of government itself.

Both versions would have employers with 25 or more employees disclose pay ranges when posting a job opening or offering certain promotions or transfers. But the House version, as reported out of the House Ways and Means Committee before hitting the floor last fall, specifically exempted many government entities.

The House text stipulates that "a covered employer shall not include a state or local government employer that makes employee pay range or salary information publicly available."

Sen. Liz Miranda gave voice to that distinction during the Senate's debate in October.

"As a Black woman, I'm all too familiar with the pay and power disparities that exist within the workforce in this country, and even in the government sector," the Boston Democrat said. "You often feel unseen. And so I'm really glad we didn't exclude ourselves from disclosure."

Rausch said that she was "thrilled" to see the bill hit the chamber floor on the "earlier" side of the term -- in the session's first year -- and that she was "keep[ing] hope alive" that a compromise version emerges.

"It's a strong provision. Any steps that we can take to ensure transparency and equity in wages and compensation are good steps," the Needham Democrat told the News Service.

While Driscoll said Thursday that she was stopping short of feeling "100 percent confident" about final passage this summer, she said she was "optimistic."

"And we believe it's a priority for both the Senate and the House, so we continue to be optimistic that this was sort of a wrinkle in time, if you will," Driscoll said, referring to Cutler's departure and "some additional moving parts" to the process.

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