Fourth time’s a charm: Bellevue legislator plans to pass equal pay law this year

Washington women lose $18 billion to the pay gap each year.

Rep. Tana Senn, D-41

Rep. Tana Senn, D-41

After re-introducing her Equal Pay Opportunity Act every legislative session since 2015, and facing a Republican-controlled Senate that would not allow a floor vote on the companion bill, Rep. Tana Senn (D-Mercer Island) thinks this will be the year Washington addresses the gender pay gap.

Washington women lose $18 billion to the pay gap each year, and the state’s equal pay law has not been updated since 1943. According to a recent Senate report on the bill, “if changes are not made, it will be 2070 before the gap is closed.”

Senn’s bill prohibits pay secrecy policies, allows discussion of wages between employees and bans retaliation against workers that ask for equal pay, which is the crux of the legislation, she said.

“If you’re a low-income woman and you need your job to pay your rent and feed your kids, you’re not going to take the risk and push the envelope. Economic and social realities still come into play,” she said. “We need to make sure women don’t have to worry about being fired for asking for equal pay or discussing their wages.”

The bill has gotten off to a fast start this year, having been heard in the House Labor Committee on the first day of the legislative session, Jan. 8. It was voted out of committee last Wednesday and was set to be heard on the House floor on Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, though it didn’t end up getting a vote. Senn’s 12-year-old daughter was planning to come down from Mercer Island on her day off from school to testify in support of the bill.

Senn said labor and women’s groups have supported the bill, and that the discussion with businesses has been collegial, as most recognize the need to address the equal pay issue. She said it is especially relevant this year, given the pay disparity being exposed in major industries like Hollywood, along with the #MeToo movement that is addressing harassment.

Senn and other lawmakers have also made the case that the pay gap cannot fully be explained by choices, and that discrimination and bias, conscious or not, play a role. Senn said that the bill is “aptly” named the Equal Pay Opportunity Act, as the availability of information about salary and job opportunities provides more of an opportunity for fairness.

“Pay secrecy perpetuates discrimination,” according to the Senate report. “Transparency gives women the information they need to know if they are being discriminated against.”

Similar versions of Senn’s bill (HB 1506) passed the Democrat-majority House in 2016 and 2017, though it has changed over the years. Senn emphasized three components in this version: equality, accessibility and clarity.

The main sponsor of the companion bill (SB 5140) is Sen. Annette Cleveland (D-Vancouver). Democrats flipped a Senate seat in the November election, and newly sworn in Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) gives them a one-vote majority.

Senn thinks the change bodes well for her legislation. She wrote in an email to constituents that she is “thrilled to see it cross the finish line this year.”

A national equal pay milestone is coming up. Jan. 29 marks the ninth anniversary of former President Barack Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, reaffirming the rights of individuals who have suffered from pay discrimination.

Washington’s Equal Pay Opportunity Act is a “big deal,” according to a statement from the group Moms Rising.

“The fact is, most people don’t find out they’re being paid less for the same work until they have a water-cooler conversation with a friend,” according to the group. “The EPOA will also create new protections for women who are tracked into lower paying jobs or unfairly passed over for promotions.”

California and Oregon passed laws similar to the EPOA in 2015 and 2017. Senn said that the three states have formed a “blue wall,” and she would like to see Washington join the others to create a “pink wall” of equal pay on the West Coast.

Equal pay is not just a women’s issue, but also an economic issue, Senn said. The National Women’s Law Center reports that, at 79 cents for every dollar paid to men, Washington state ranked 25th in the 2015 Wage Gap State Rankings. The national average is 80 cents. African American and Latina women fare worse, making 61 cents and 46 cents respectively, for every dollar paid to white men.

The National Partnership for Women and Families wrote in 2017 that in Washington, median annual pay for a woman who holds a full-time, year-round job is $44,422, while median annual pay for a man who holds a full-time, year-round job is $56,215, meaning women in Washington are paid 79 cents for every dollar paid to men.

Along with equal pay, Senn is also working on bills related to gun control, foster care, child welfare and special education funding this session. See housedemocrats.wa.gov/legislators/tana-senn for more.

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