Cuomo signs equal pay, vows it’s just the beginning

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When the U.S. women’s national soccer team brought home the Women’s World Cup earlier this month, they didn’t just break the FIFA record for back-to-back wins. The public also learned members of the team would be paid a fraction of what their male counterparts made, prompting renewed discussion about equal pay.

So it was probably no coincidence Gov. Andrew Cuomo chose the start of the Manhattan ticker tape parade held in the soccer team’s honor last week to sign new laws he says ensures qualified workers get equal pay.

“I’m going to sign a law today that says it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s not just the moral thing to do, it is also the law in the state of New York,” Cuomo told media moments before signing the bills.

One of the bills was first introduced by state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi prohibiting employers from paying members of a protected class — like women and minorities — less than members of a non-protected class if they have the same qualifications and job responsibilities.

Seeing her bill signed in front of an international audience was “spectacular,” she said.

“That is a stunning thing to be able to have that many people understand what the bill does, but also understand the importance of it,” Biaggi said. “It’s a very important part of policymaking that we don’t often get as lawmakers.”

The law does not apply in cases where merit, seniority, commission, education or experience determines pay differences. It does apply when an employer pays people with disabilities, women, LGBTQ, older employees or any other protected class less because of their status.

Under previous laws, the onus of proving unequal pay fell on the aggrieved employee when filing a pay discrimination claim. The new law shifts that burden of proof to the employer.

“This is one of those opportunities and times where we’ve shifted it to more of an equal playing field when it comes to people coming forward with these claims,” Biaggi said.

Changing the law to give employees more rights is a big step forward, but it doesn’t address the other important goal: public awareness.

“When it comes to changing a law now, I think it is a responsibility of lawmakers that our constituencies and the people we represent understand their rights,” Biaggi said.

Change only works if employees understand there is legal recourse when discrimination happens. The government needs to make the information available so people know their rights.

And just because the law has been strengthened, it’s not a panacea solving all pay discrimination. Employees risk intimidation, wrongful termination and other economic impacts that come with speaking out, Biaggi said. Employers will want to silence those coming forward. It’s not a magic pill, but the law is an excellent first step.

“Sometimes culture leads the lawmaking, and sometimes lawmaking leads the culture,” Biaggi said. “And this is one of the instances where the lawmaking can lead the culture into a place where we actually do have equal pay for equal work.”

Cuomo also signed a new law prohibiting employers from asking job candidates or employees about their past salary. Gender- and protected class-based pay discrimination was systemic, lawmakers said, with the pay gap following an employee from one job to another.

“When you go for a job interview and they ask you your salary history, it’s almost like you’re bidding against yourself, so to speak,” Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said. He was one of the co-sponsors on the legislation introduced by fellow Bronx Assemblyman Marcos Crespo.

Sometimes companies don’t stray too far from what a new hire made at their last job. Some employers pay as little as possible, even when two employees have the same qualifications and will do the same job, Dinowitz said. Salary history is a common way to do that.

“When a potential employer determines what salary to give you, it should be based on your merits,” he said, “not based on the possibility that in the previous job you were making less than you should have as a result of past discrimination.”

The law doesn’t explicitly mention sexism. Instead it’s designed to protect any job applicant or employee seeking a promotion from wage discrimination. It also prevents employers from making salary history a requirement for interviews or job offers.

The next stop now is a public awareness campaign informing job-seekers and employers about the change. And if an applicant or employee hoping for a promotion is asked to state how much they were paid in the past, they can bring a civil suit against the employer.

“This is an ongoing process,” Dinowitz said, but one more possible now that Democrats control both the Assembly and the senate. That means there could be additional bills in the future to ensure that “everybody, no matter what their circumstances — gender, sexual orientation or whatever — but that everybody is treated fairly and equally, and no one loses out because of their demographic description.”

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